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updated 4/15/2005 1:11:45 PM ET 2005-04-15T17:11:45

Recent research shows that chocolate can provide natural health-promoting substances called flavonoids.

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Since flavonoids seem to help prevent heart disease and cancer, the idea of eating chocolate sounds like a tempting and delicious way to better your health. The complete message is, however, that although chocolate might be preferable to other treats, it is no substitute for vegetables and fruits, which also contain flavonoids.

The flavonoids in chocolate that laboratory studies demonstrate to have powerful antioxidant effects are called flavanols and procyanidins. These two compounds come from the flavonoid “family” that includes resveratrol, found in grape juice, and EGCG, found in green tea. When people consume these substances in chocolate and cocoa, the antioxidant status of their blood increases.

This rise in antioxidant levels helps protect us from damage to the heart and blood vessels, while it also guards our DNA from damage that can lead to cancer.

In addition, the flavanols and procyanidins in chocolate improve the function and flow of blood vessels and help control inflammation.

The antioxidants in chocolate have generated a lot of interest because studies show that these compounds are more powerful antioxidants than EGCG in tea, which is a strong antioxidant.

One study that compared the total antioxidant activity in single servings of cocoa, green tea, black tea and red wine scored cocoa markedly higher than the rest.

Yet the flavonoid content of cocoa and chocolate is highly variable. The more cocoa in a chocolate product, the higher the antioxidant flavonoid content is.

Because dark chocolate is more concentrated in cocoa content, it is higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate. For this reason, dark chocolate is used in research studies. White chocolate has no cocoa content.

Beware calorie load
A cup of hot or cold cocoa may sound like a health drink loaded with antioxidants, but almost all cocoa drink mixes contain cocoa treated with alkali (also called Dutch cocoa) to produce a darker, richer taste. Unfortunately, this process drastically reduces flavonoid content.

Unless you find a chocolate mix made with untreated cocoa, start with plain cocoa (not Dutch) and add your own sweetener and milk to make a flavonoid-rich cup.

Surprisingly, the fat content of chocolate is not a reason to avoid it. Technically, chocolate contains saturated fat, but the particular type of saturated fat – stearic acid – is unique because it does not raise blood cholesterol.

Studies show that neither dark or milk chocolate is a cholesterol concern in moderate amounts. But keep in mind that other ingredients added to some chocolate candies can change their nutrition impact.

But one of the reasons you shouldn’t rely on chocolate for antioxidants, in the place of vegetables and fruits, is the calorie load. A small piece of dark chocolate has only 50 calories, but most candy bars contain at least 200.

In comparison, a serving of vegetables and fruits contains a generous amount of health-promoting phytochemicals and only 25 to 80 calories. An antioxidant-rich serving of green tea has no calories at all.

Besides, vegetables and fruits have more than flavonoids. They provide vitamins, minerals like magnesium and potassium, and phytochemicals that protect our health in other ways. Some, for example, block the activation of carcinogens, while others interfere with the life cycle of cancer cells and promote their destruction.

Recent research on the flavonoids in chocolate implies that we can enjoy limited amounts of this sweet treat without guilt. But this news shouldn’t discourage us from eating a mostly plant-based diet loaded with vegetables and fruits.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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