Health Column: The benefits of chocolate

It’s February and the chocolate treats are plentiful. Stories touting the health benefits of chocolate — including fighting cancer — have helped spawn a wide variety of sweets, from chocolate bacon bars and bite-sized candies to chocolate gum and pasta.

Whatever your choice of chocolate indulgence, the health benefits of chocolate depend upon the type of chocolate you choose — and how much.
Most of the health benefits  claimed for dark chocolate relate to cardiovascular disease. Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. When comparing the antioxidant content of foods gram for gram, cocoa often ranks among the highest. And research shows that consuming chocolate increases the antioxidants in our blood.

A steady stream of population and lab studies link eating chocolate in moderation with heart health, including improving blood vessel function and lowering blood pressure.

Given chocolate’s rich supply of flavonoids, researchers have also investigated whether it may play a role in cancer prevention. The studies in cancer prevention are still emerging. A recent review of studies on the cancer protective properties of cocoa concluded that the evidence is limited but suggestive. More rigorous studies should be conducted on chocolate’s cancer protective role, because it provides “strong antioxidant effects in combination with a pleasurable eating experience.”

All chocolate products begin with the cacao bean. First, the bean is roasted and ground into a thick chocolate nonalcoholic liquor. This liquor, hardened, is unsweetened chocolate. When pressure is added to the liquor, it pushes out the bean’s fat, called cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is made by drying and sifting the remaining material from the liquor.

Mix up some chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and milk and the commercial chocolate treat emerges. In general, the higher the percentage of cacao, the darker the chocolate and the more intense the flavor. And as cacao content goes up, there’s less room for sugar. A bar labeled 70 percent chocolate is 70 percent cocoa plus cocoa butter and 30 percent sugar.

White chocolate only contains the butter but not any chocolate liquor. Technically it’s not even chocolate, but it gets its name because it contains cocoa butter.

The main thing from a health standpoint is to realize that it’s important not to overdo the amount of chocolate you eat as too much can result in mounting calories. But in small amounts, it can be beneficial.

The American Institute for Cancer Research, an organization that studies the relationship of nutrition to health, provided this column.