Anyone thinking of buying a supersized bag of miniature chocolate bars for healthy snacking this Halloween may want to reconsider. Chocolate has previously been hyped as a food that may ward off cardiovascular disease and help to improve your memory, but at this point, that's an overstatement.
Here's why: While some observational studies have linked chocolate consumption to reductions in heart disease and dementia, they can't establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Any benefit seen in these studies is thought to be due not to the chocolate itself, but to flavanols — bioactive compounds that occur naturally in the cocoa bean.
"Flavanols are one of the most promising and exciting nutritional interventions available for helping to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and a large-scale randomized trial is the next logical step in testing their effectiveness," says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. She and her colleague Dr. Howard Sesso are leading one such study: the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), which is testing the effects of consuming 750 milligrams (mg) of cocoa flavanols a day in capsules.
The flavanol content of chocolate products varies widely. The amount depends on how the cocoa beans are grown and processed and on the proportion of cocoa powder to fat and sugar in the final chocolate product. Naturally processed unsweetened cocoa is a very good source of flavanols and is relatively low in calories. However, it may be necessary to consume more than 700 calories of dark chocolate — and more than a thousand calories of milk chocolate — to get 750 mg of flavanols. White chocolate has no flavanols whatsoever.
Even when the flavanol content is uncertain, chocolate is still a good alternative to other sweets like baked goods and sticky or hard candies. A 1.5-ounce serving a few times a week is fine. So is warming up with a steaming cup of cocoa in the cold days ahead.
Read the full-length article: "Is chocolate really a health food?"
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