Take two candy bars and call me in the morning?
Sweet, rich chocolate has always been something of a guilty pleasure
for people with high cholesterol or those following a heart-healthy
diet. But what if chocolate contained substances that are good for
the heart? Would that transform it into a health food? That's what
Mars, the maker of M&M's, Snickers, and other sweet treats, is
hoping you'll think. The company has rolled out CocoaVia, a line of
seven chocolates laced with plant sterols and flavanols for what Mars
calls "real chocolate pleasure, real heart health benefits." According
to Mars, eating these chocolate snacks will lower cholesterol and keep
your arteries healthy. There's some truth to that - if you read the
Chocolate is the latest in a string of foods to be beefed up with sterols
or stanols, cholesterol-like substances made by plants. There is solid
evidence that eating about 2 grams of plant sterols every day lowers
cholesterol by a decent 10%. Keep in mind that plant sterols yield meaningful
changes in cholesterol levels only in people with high cholesterol to
begin with and must be consumed every day to make a difference.
What about flavanols? Flavanols are abundant in cocoa beans, although
they are often lost or destroyed during the process that turns the beans
into chocolate. A number of beneficial "anti" effects have
been attributed to flavanols. The main one is antioxidant activity; others
include possible activity against viruses, allergies, inflammation, and
A few small studies show that flavanols in cocoa may help keep healthy
arteries flexible, but these were mostly done in healthy people and used
substantial doses of cocoa. Studies looking at flavonoid intake and the
risk of heart attack or stroke have yielded mixed results, with some
showing no effect and others showing modest protection.
To summarize: Eating 2 grams of plant sterols every day lowers cholesterol
an average of 10%. Eating 100 grams of flavanols may keep healthy arteries
flexible, but there is scant evidence so far it will rejuvenate stiff
arteries, lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, or prevent
a heart attack or stroke.
To Mars' credit, the eight products in the CocoaVia line are decent
alternatives to the usual chocolate bar. In addition to developing a
process to retain the natural flavanols in cocoa, the company worked
hard to limit calories and saturated fat.
But when it comes to using fortified chocolate to lower cholesterol,
there's a big catch: You must eat two portions of CocoaVia every day
to get the necessary 2 grams of plant sterols. That means a daily dose
of sterols and flavanols comes with an extra 200 calories and 36% of
the daily recommended limit for saturated fat.
If you don't cut back 200 calories somewhere else that would translate
into a 20-pound weight gain over the course of a year. That's more than
enough to counteract any benefits from sterols and flavanols.
There are easier and less expensive ways to get plant sterols and flavanols.
Since plant sterols must be taken every day in a fixed dose to reap their
benefit, they are more like medicine than food, says Dr. Alice Lichtenstein,
a professor of nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition.
So it makes sense to buy sterols in capsule form. You can get flavanols
from tea, apples, raspberries, red wine, and other foods. If you'd rather
take a pill, you can also find flavanol supplements.
CocoaVia and other similarly fortified snacks may nudge the guilt out
of eating chocolate, but they aren't health foods. There are cheaper,
no-calorie ways to lower your cholesterol and protect your arteries.
March 2006 update
Back to Previous