The myth of healthy chocolate

I'm a fan of dark chocolate. Like a lot of people, I was eager to believe that eating it had health benefits. Unfortunately, much like a nut wrapped in chocolate this turned out to be a small truth wrapped in a larger lie. Or, a raisin in a bucket of codswallop if you prefer...

It’s a myth that darker chocolates always have the most flavanols. Dark chocolate does contain more chocolate liquor than milk chocolate; however, flavanol contents vary considerably depending on the bean’s journey through all stages of chocolate production.

Though flavanols are abundant in the fresh, raw cocoa seed, how the seed is handled from tree to finished chocolate matters a great deal.  Through conventional handling and common manufacturing processes such as fermentation, drying, roasting and alkalization, the natural flavanol components are readily destroyed.

Because of these variables, the cacao percentage marked on a chocolate’s label isn’t a reliable guide to flavanol amounts.  Though darker may be better for a deep chocolate taste, it does not guarantee a higher flavanol content.

from: http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/What/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3439

The findings support recent research linking flavanols, especially epicatechin, to improved blood circulation, heart health and memory in mice, snails and humans. But experts said the new study, although involving only 37 participants and partly funded by Mars Inc., the chocolate company, goes further and was a well-controlled, randomized trial led by experienced researchers.

There was no increased activity in another hippocampal region, the entorhinal cortex, which is impaired early in Alzheimer’s disease. That reinforces the idea that age-related memory decline is different and suggests that flavanols might not help Alzheimer’s, even though they might delay normal memory loss.

But unless you are stocking up for Halloween, do not rush to buy Milky Way or Snickers bars. To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin, 138 milligrams, would take eating at least 300 grams of dark chocolate a day — about seven average-sized bars. Or possibly about 100 grams of baking chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder, but concentrations vary widely depending on the processing. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.

“You would have to eat a large amount of chocolate,” along with its fat and calories, said Hagen Schroeter, director of fundamental health and nutrition research for Mars, which funds many flavanol studies and approached Dr. Small for this one. (“I nearly threw them out,” said Dr. Small, who added that he later concluded that the company employed serious scientists who would not bias the research.) Mars financed about half the study; other funders were the National Institutes of Health and two research foundations.

“Candy bars don’t even have a lot of chocolate in them,” Dr. Schroeter said. And “most chocolate uses a process called dutching and alkalization. That’s like poison for flavanol.”

from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/us/a-bite-to-remember-chocolate-is-shown-to-aid-memory.html?_r=2 (an example of a catchy headline that doesn't really match the article content)

But those flavanols largely disappear once the cocoa bean is heated, fermented and processed into chocolate. In other words, making chocolate destroys the very ingredient that is supposed to make it healthy.

That’s why Small’s memory study used a highly concentrated powder prepared exclusively for research by Mars Inc., the chocolate company, which also partially funded the study.

"It is not a commercially available product," said Catherine Kwik-Uribe, the scientific director at Mars Inc. "It’s actually very difficult for an average consumer today to get the flavanol levels that we see are needed in order to produce some of the effects."

This is true even for dark chocolate. A high percentage of cocoa does not necessarily mean high levels of flavanols. And there are no international standards for flavanol content.

The other problem is the taste.

Flavanols are bitter, and researchers have done studies to test the levels of flavanols that research subjects can choke down. The "rejection threshold" for the high flavanol chocolate was more than 80 per cent — a finding that does not bode well for the dream of healthy chocolate.

from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/chocolate-health-myth-dissolves-1.2879898

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