A recent study from the University of Cambridge in the UK suggests that eating lots of chocolate may prevent heart disease. The report was published in the August 29, 2011 online edition of the British Medical Journal.
Chocolate has been linked to health benefits before, but in this analysis of recent studies, researchers found that those who ate the most chocolate reduced their risk for heart disease by one-third. Dr. Oscar H. Franco and his team did a meta-analysis of seven published medical studies that included a total of 114,009 people. The researchers did not differentiate between the kind of chocolate eaten: it included dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate drinks, cookies, and desserts. It compared those who reported eating chocolate more than once a week to those who ate it less than once a week. (The study was not funded by chocolate manufacturers.)
This was all epidemiological evidence. The researchers combed through computerized data looking for trends, but it doesn’t actually prove anything; it can only show correlations. Just because two things happen together doesn’t mean that one causes the other and it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the effect may be from something else entirely, including random chance. However, it can be useful as a way to rule things out. (In other words, it only takes one black swan to disprove the theory that all swans are white).
Puzzled by the seeming contradiction that a food high in saturated fat could reduce the risks of heart disease, the researchers seized on the only explanation that could co-exist with their preconceptions about chocolate: the antioxidents and bioflavanoids in chocolate must be powerful enough to over-ride the “bad” things in it.
To his credit, Dr. Franco warned that there have not been any clinical trials to see if the association is real or to determine how much and what kind of chocolate gives the best results. He doesn’t recommend that anyone should eat chocolate for its health benefits, and if you do eat it, he says, you should eat it only in moderation because of its fat, calorie, and sugar content. (Saw that coming, didn’t you?) He says, “We still need to clarify the quantity that permits chocolate to prevent heart disease….we don’t think it’s going to be a high quantity.”
It doesn’t occur to him that the benefits of chocolate might be because of the fats and not in spite of them, especially when tested in a population eating a diet in which most of the natural, traditional fats have been replaced with damaged fats, trans fats, and pro-inflammatory oils made from soy and grains. Dr. Franco should listen to his own advice and apply the same standard of proof to the studies frequently cited to show that saturated fats, like those in cocoa butter, are bad for you in the first place.
Plain, unsweetened chocolate is 87% fat, most of it saturated. But the largest percentage of the saturated fat is stearic acid, which is quickly converted into monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, when ingested. Stearic acid is the most common saturated fat and the predominate fat in red meat (the name is derived from the Greek word for “tallow,” the fat found in red meat). Even the USDA’s new guidelines exempt stearic acid from the list of saturated fats that should be avoided. In both epidemiological and clinical trials, stearic acid has been associated with lowered LDL cholesterol. (See footnote #1.)
I’d also point out the fallacy of his belief that chocolate necessarily contains sugar (one taste of a ChocoPerfection bar would be the best argument to refute that), although it is refreshing that he recognizes that sugar is not innocent. I’m sure the results would have been much more dramatic if sugar-free chocolate had been in the running.
Yes, chocolate is rich in antioxidants, with an ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbence Capacity) value of 55,650 for cocoa powder compared to 9,621 for wild blueberries or 3,290 for raw gogi berries. It is also a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, and zinc and an excellent source of copper and manganese. It is naturally low in sugar and carbohydrates and has a glycemic load of zero. If more of the people in the studies examined by Dr. Franco ate chocolate, minus the sugar, several times a day, like I do, I’m sure the results would have been much more conclusive that chocolate is good and good for you.
1. Hunter, J. Edward; Zhang, Jun; Kris-Etherton, Penny M. (January 2010). “Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review”. Am. J. Clinical Nutrition (American Society for Nutrition) 91 (1): 46–63.
(c) 2011, Judy Barnes Baker; Carb Wars; Sugar is the New Fat