Special to
updated 5/11/2007 11:18:37 AM ET 2007-05-11T15:18:37

Chocolates claiming to be high in antioxidants are everywhere. How do we reconcile boosting chocolate’s antioxidants, which supposedly help lower risk of heart disease and cancer, with possible weight gain, which may increase the risk of these diseases?

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The answer involves choosing our source of chocolate wisely and making sure it replaces other treats, not the vegetables, fruits and whole grains we need.

Laboratory studies demonstrate powerful antioxidant effects from a group of cocoa bean compounds called flavonoids. The flavonoid “family” also includes such health-protective compounds as the resveratrol in grape juice and EGCG in green tea.

When people consume chocolate and cocoa, the amount of antioxidants in their blood increases. Studies also show that oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a process that converts cholesterol to a form more damaging to blood vessels, is slowed. Other studies suggest that chocolate’s antioxidant action could protect our DNA from damage that can develop into cancer. Chocolate’s flavonoids provide additional heart health benefits by improving function and flow through blood vessels.

Yet the flavonoid content of chocolate is highly variable. Dark chocolate, which can be bittersweet and semi-sweet, is usually 50 percent to 85 percent cocoa (which includes cocoa bean solids plus cocoa butter), is high in flavonoids and has an intense flavor. Dark chocolate is less sweet than other types of chocolate because as cocoa content goes up, sugar content drops. Milk chocolate can range from 7 percent to 50 percent cocoa. White chocolate contains no cocoa bean solids (and therefore is not a source of flavonoids), but does contain cocoa butter.

Research suggests health benefits from drinking cocoa, too. One study comparing total antioxidant activity from single servings of cocoa, green tea, black tea and red wine, reported cocoa markedly higher than the rest. However, most widely available cocoa mixes contain treated cocoa (called Dutch cocoa) that produces a richer taste but contains much fewer antioxidants. Gourmet cocoa mixes are available made with natural (untreated) cocoa. You can also make a flavonoid-rich cup of cocoa with natural cocoa from the grocery store plus your own sweetener and milk.

Watch calories more than fat
The fat content of chocolate is not the problem that some people consider it to be. Seventy percent of chocolate’s fat is either monounsaturated or a particular type of saturated fat called stearic acid that does not raise blood cholesterol. Whether dark or milk chocolate, studies show it is heart health-safe.

The calories in chocolate can pose a problem, however. Two to four small pieces of dark chocolate are shown in studies to increase antioxidant status for several hours, but they contain about 165 to 220 calories. (Chocolate candy containing cream or jelly fillings are much higher in calories.)

We can get the same health-promoting antioxidants from a serving of fruits and vegetables for 25 to 80 calories, and in tea for no calories at all. Besides, fruits and vegetables are not just important for their flavonoids. They provide important vitamins, minerals such as magnesium and potassium, and phytochemicals that protect our health in other ways — for instance, by blocking carcinogen activation or interfering with the growth cycle of cancer cells and promoting their destruction.

Most adults can maintain a healthy weight and still consume 150 to 350 “discretionary calories” per day from foods that don’t add much nutritionally. Savoring small portions of flavonoid-rich chocolate and cocoa could be great ways to “spend” those calories. It sure beats indulging in foods that are loaded with calories, sugar and unhealthful fats such as doughnuts, chocolate cakes or soft drinks.

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