Saturday, December 10, 2011

Can a box of chocolates actually be good for us?

Recent headlines make it sound like the Christmas chocolates open on the kitchen counter are chock-full of amazing antioxidants. But, as with anything else, some relevant details may be hidden in the fine print.

Dark chocolate has a high level of antioxidants, called flavonoids, from the cocoa bean, but the popular milk chocolate variety unfortunately lacks this. In order to get the true health benefits, we need to be reaching for a chocolate that contains at least 70 per cent cocoa. The higher the percentage, the greater the concentration of antioxidants, but it also tends to get more bitter.

Testing has estimated that dark chocolate contains eight times the amount flavonoids antioxidants compared to strawberries. So why not get the best of both worlds, and have strawberries dipped in dark chocolate at your next party?

Chocolate has been garnering quite a bit of accolades lately and is being promoted as a true decadent food full of antioxidants that can help us find the fountain of youth. The studies surrounding dark chocolate are very promising. Help lower our bad cholesterol, while boosting our good cholesterol values, and even trimming some points off our blood-pressure readings.

Other studies have even reported chocolate to improve blood vessel flow, especially in older adults, and may even help improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity.

Impressive. And if you just read the headlines, you probably are already halfway through that box. But unfortunately not all chocolate is the same, and the creamy milk chocolate often found wrapped in those boxes often fails to offer the potent benefits of its darker, bittersweet counterpart.

Another relevant factor is that the studies conducted were often based on very small test samples. One study indicated that people who had a diet rich in flavonoid-rich cocoa powder had slightly higher HDL-cholesterol, which is the great cleaner variety. But once you looked closer, the study was only based on 23 subjects. Not exactly the ideal study, but it was significant enough to garner headlines and was a marketer's dream.

The other factor to consider is quantity. Chocolate, mainly the milk chocolate variety, can have several addictive qualities and one little candy can lead some into temptation. The milk chocolate variety not only lacks the medicinal health benefits, but it is also laden with calories, fat and sugar. Some may even contain trans fats which we ideally want completely eliminated from our diet. Not even a little.

These are more often found in the cheaper varitities since it helps stabilize and preserve the fat. So choose wisely.

Maybe you prefer a hot mug of cocoa. But which version is actually better for you? Should you grab the box from the cupboard and make the instant variety with water, or make the old-fashioned recipe with real milk, sugar and cocoa?

When you actually look at the nutritional comparisons, you may be pleased to know that not only can the real traditional hot cocoa taste better, but is also preferred nutritionally. It offers similar calories, but tends to be lower in sugar, void of additives and preservatives, while offering our body some calcium, protein, and some flavonoids if you use the real cocoa.

Although it is only on your taste buds for a matter of seconds, chocolate can have a lingering affect.
The creamy texture can be alluring, and then our brain notices a sudden jolt in blood sugar level, and an endorphin rush which can be enticing.

But it is too short-lived. That is why some people say "one is too much, and two is never enough."
So while chocolate may offer us some interesting longterm health benefits, it is wise to choose the dark 70 per cent cocoa variety, and be careful when you have it, if you are tempted to have more than a mouthful.

Catherine McCain, RD, BSc, MBA is a consulting dietitian in private practice at 340 Brunswick St. She can be reached at 457-2722.


How to Make Chocolate Truffle

Tea made from panda feces expected to be most expensive brew in the world
Antioxidants in Dark Chocolate