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Uptight Harvard Researchers Say Chocolate Isn't a Health Food

Even if flavanols—antioxidant compounds found in cocoa beans—happen to be good for you, you can’t eat a ton of Halloween chocolate and simply sit back and enjoy the health benefits.
October 29, 2015, 2:30pm
Photo via Flickr user sharisberries

In a world where red meat and processed foods are linked to cancer and cutting back on sugar can lead to better health in children in just ten days, we cherish reports that find red wine can promote longevity and help prevent cancer or that chocolate is good for the heart.

But dark tidings: While chocolate has been cautiously heralded as having health benefits, Harvard Women's Health Watch warns it's too early to determine if chocolate—consumed in moderation, of course—can be linked to reductions in heart disease and dementia.

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Previously, observational studies had found that people who ate chocolate had a reduced occurrence of heart disease and dementia. The supposed health benefits are due to flavanols, antioxidant compounds that occur naturally in cocoa beans, and sadly not to the chocolate itself. Flavanols are found in cocoa solids, which, along with cocoa fat and other ingredients, make up chocolate.

Though small clinical trials have shown in the past that high doses of flavanols can relax blood vessels and encourage blood flow to the brain, potentially leading to decreased risk of stroke and heart attacks, scientists say it's too soon to be sure. A double blind study conducted by doctors at Harvard affiliate Brigham and Women's Hospital will seek to better define just what the effect of flavanols are on health. One group of the study's 18,000 participants will take a 750-milligram capsule of cocoa flavanols a day, while another will get a placebo.

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While we root for the positive health benefits of flavanols, there are some things to know about how they feature in various types of chocolate. Cocoa powder includes flavanol-rich cocoa solids and no cocoa fat, making it a healthy way to ingest flavanols. However, European cocoa powder is processed with alkali, which reduces the flavanol content, so Harvard recommends naturally processed, unsweetened cocoa. Dark chocolate, made with cocoa powder and cocoa butter, can have a high amount of flavanols if the percentage of cocoa powder is high. But the cocoa percentage listed on dark chocolate can be misleading, as it can include both the amount of cocoa butter and powder. Milk chocolate adds milk into the mix, and typically has more sugar and less cocoa powder than dark chocolate.

Sadly, even if flavanols are good for you, you can't eat a ton of Halloween chocolate and simply sit back and enjoy the health benefits. To get to 750 milligrams of flavanols a day, you'd have to eat about 700 calories of dark chocolate and over 1,000 calories of milk chocolate, leading, potentially, to a different kind of health emergency than the one you're hoping to stave off. You can, however, turn to cocoa powder supplements—Harvard recommends CocoaVia, a cocoa flavanol supplement produced by the candy manufacturer Mars.

Hershey, which today reported a decline of 31 percent in quarterly profits amid weak demand for candy, could afford to get in on the action. Back in 2007, it released Hershey's Antioxidant Milk Chocolate bar, which featured a high concentration of flavanols. It appears they were ahead of the times, though, as the bar is no longer on the market.

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Meanwhile, the idea of throwing back a bottle of red and chomping down a bar of chocolate "for health" seems to be a pipe dream. Doctors, with their incessant calls for moderation, suggest drinking a glass and a half or so of wine and eating 1.5 ounces of chocolate a few times a week to stay in the health zone.