Many of the old myths about chocolate and health are crumbling under the weight of scientific fact. The once-prevalent belief that something that tastes so good just cannot be good for you has given way to a more balanced picture of chocolate and cocoa products and their relation to health and nutrition.
The following are brief reviews on recent findings which counter several of the common misinterpretations of the effects of chocolate on health.
Chocolate and Acne
Over the past two decades, research has revealed that chocolate neither causes nor aggravates acne. Acne, a condition resulting from the extreme activity of the skin's oil glands during puberty, is not linked primarily to diet. In research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Department of Dermatology, a control group was given a bar with no chocolate which resembled a chocolate bar and had 28 percent vegetable fat to imitate the fat content of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. A similar group was given real chocolate, but the test bars contained almost 10 times as much chocolate liquor as a normal 1.4 ounce chocolate bar. At the end of the test, the average acne condition of the persons in the group eating chocolate was almost the same as those who had no chocolate.
A group of 80 midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, all of whom had acne conditions ranging from mild to moderate, were divided into groups, both experiencing the same living, dining and physical activities. One group avoided all chocolate for four weeks, the other included a minimum of three bars in their daily diet. After four weeks, the groups exchanged eating patterns. Clinical observations, facial overlays and photographs showed no significant changes in the acne conditions in either group.
Chocolate and Caffeine
The amount of caffeine ingested when people eat chocolate in normal quantities is very small. 1.4 ounces of milk chocolate, for example, contains about 6 milligrams of caffeine, about the same as the amount found in a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Thus, the role of caffeine in chocolate is largely a non-issue.
Chocolate and Dental Cavities
Tooth decay has become less of a problem for Americans over the last 30 years. Between 1960 and 1980 the incidence of cavities dropped by 50 percent. Today, more than one-third of all college-aged Americans have never had a single cavity.
It is widely accepted that all foods containing "fermentable carbohydrates" have the potential to contribute to caries formation. Fermentable carbohydrates are present in starches and sugars, including those that occur naturally in foods and those added in processed foods. Frequency and duration of tooth exposure to fermentable carbohydrates have been identified as factors in caries.
Although chocolate contains fermentable carbohydrates, a number of dental research studies suggest that chocolate may be less apt to promote tooth decay than has been traditionally believed. Research at the Forsyth Dental Center in Boston and at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Dental Medicine has shown that cocoa and chocolate have the ability to offset the acid-producing potential of the sugar they contain. Acid, produced by certain oral bacteria that digest or "ferment" sugars, can damage tooth enamel and cause decay. Cocoa and chocolate have also been shown to reduce the demineralization process-an activity which directly results in the formation of dental caries.
In a study conducted at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York, milk chocolate and chocolate chip cookies were found to be among the snack foods which contribute least to dental decay. The researchers reported that: "Milk chocolate has a high content of protein, calcium, phosphate and other minerals, all of which have exhibited protective effects on tooth enamel. In addition, due to its natural fat content, milk chocolate clears the mouth relatively faster than other candies. These factors are thought to be responsible for making milk chocolate less cariogenic."
Chocolate and Nutrients
Chocolate provides a number of nutrients the body requires daily. A milk chocolate bar weighing 1.4 ounces contains about three grams of protein, fifteen percent of the Daily Value of riboflavin, nine percent of the Daily Value for calcium and seven percent of the Daily Value for iron.
Almonds and peanuts added to chocolate increase the nutrients in a bar. This is particularly true for protein. Milk chocolate bars with almonds also have increased amounts of calcium, iron and riboflavin.
Chocolate and Weight Control
Contrary to the popular stereotype, most overweight people do not eat excessive amounts of cake, cookies, confectionery or other foods containing sugar. Their sugar intake tends, in fact, to be below average.
More important in controlling weight is the total number of calories consumed each day and the amount of energy expended in physical activity. Overweight children, for example, are generally less active than those of normal weight; thus, they may remain overweight even when their caloric intake is reasonable or even limited.
Moreover, many people overestimate the calories in chocolate. A 1.4 ounce milk chocolate bar contains approximately 210 calories-low enough to incorporate into a weight control diet. The occasional chocolate confection may also reduce the possibility of a binge, which can occur as a result of feeling deprived of highly satisfying foods such as chocolate.
Chocolate and Cocoa Butter
Cocoa butter, the fat that occurs naturally in cocoa beans, gives chocolate its distinctive smoothness and "melt-in-the-mouth" texture. Research has shown that cocoa butter, despite its high saturated fat content, does not raise blood cholesterol levels as do other saturated fats. This is due to its high stearic acid content. Stearic acid, one of the principal fatty acids in cocoa butter, has been found to be used in the body differently, in that it may reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Lastly, about chocolate milk. Chocolate milk provides more zinc, potassium, niacin and riboflavin than plain whole milk. In terms of calcium, protein and vitamin B, plain milk has slightly more. For all other nutrients, plain milk and chocolate milk are about the same.
Additionally, children are more likely to drink chocolate milk than plain milk. Studies have shown that the amount of chocolate milk left undrunk by children in grades 1 through 5 was about two-thirds less than when only plain milk was offered.
Moreover, research conducted at the University of Rhode Island suggests chocolate milk may have benefits for individuals who are lactose intolerant. Research reveals that lactose intolerant individuals who consumed chocolate milk showed significant reductions in their symptoms.