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Chocolate a health food? Dream on

Update: There have been a number of articles recently touting chocolate as a new "wonder food" for healthful living. The basis of these articles is that chocolate contains antioxidants that make it effective in warding off such things as cancer and heart disease. Today, I will discuss some of the myths about chocolate reported in an article in the Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Myth No. 1 — Chocolate helps prevent cancer: "Studies have shown that chocolate contains a very high level of antioxidants, ranking with the top fruits and vegetables for antioxidant content." (Chocolate Industry Web site.)

The truth: There are antioxidants in chocolates, but it is not clear whether the USDA test-tube measure (called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) reflects what happens in the body. "Antioxidants may be protective for some cell functions, but we can't leap ahead and conclude that (they) prevent cancer or any other disease," says Norman Krinsky, a Tufts University researcher.

Several studies have failed to find a lower risk of cancer in people who consume more antioxidants called flavonoids (from any foods, not just chocolate). And, although there are many studies showing a link between fruits and vegetables and a lower cancer risk, there are none relating the intake of chocolate and a decrease in cancer risk.

Myth No. 2 — Chocolate protects the heart: "Even though it contains saturated fat, milk chocolate does not affect blood cholesterol levels." (Chocolate Industry Web site.)

The truth: Stearic acid, one of the saturated fats in chocolate, doesn't raise cholesterol levels. But chocolate contains other saturated fats — especially palmitic acid — that do. And stearic acid may promote blood clots and increase the risk of heart disease in other ways.

Numerous studies show that cocoa butter, the parent source of chocolate, raises blood cholesterol. Apparently chocolate is about as bad as lard when it comes to raising cholesterol in the blood, but it's not quite as bad as butter.

Myth No. 3 — Eating chocolate doesn't make you fat: "There is no evidence that chocolate consumption is associated with obesity." (Chocolate & Health, a brochure written by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.)

The truth: No single food causes obesity or weight gain. But chocolate is one of many foods that have made the United States a contender for blubber capital of the world. Like any fatty food, chocolate is calorie-dense. Since it packs a lot of calories into a small package, it is easy to get too many calories without realizing it, which can add significantly to the obesity problem.

Myth No. 4 — Chocolate fits into a healthy diet: "What my research is showing is that you shouldn't think that chocolate is a bad food if it's eaten in the context of a good diet." (Quote from an Oct. 31, 2000, article in the New York Times.)

The truth: There is room for a little chocolate in a diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fat-free milk, skinless chicken breast and grilled fish. The problem is that many Americans eat chocolate in the context of a lousy diet, loaded with cheeseburgers, pizza, french fries, fried chicken, ice cream, Cinnabons, croissants, doughnuts and other fatty foods.

"There's no reason to take the enjoyment out of eating chocolate in moderate quantities," says Tufts' Alice Lichtenstein. But people shouldn't think that more is better. "No one would recommend adding chocolate calories to the the diet because we're consuming too many calories anyway."

The bottom line: Don't eat chocolate as a health food because it is not. If you do eat it, eat it only sparingly for pleasure.

Garth Fisher is former director of the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University.