The Good And The Bad News for Chocolate Fans

  • ChemPubSoc Europe Logo
  • DOI: 10.1002/chemv.201000111
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Published Date: 01 August 2011
  • Copyright: WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
thumbnail image: The Good And The Bad News for Chocolate Fans
My name is David — and I am a chocoholic.


There, I've said it, it's out there, I've admitted to my vice, 'fessed up.


There are worse vices, of course. I could be a chain smoker, an aficionado of other South American weeds or worse still, a Justin Bieber fan. For every vice there are cautions, for tobacco smoke there is the inevitable lung cancer risk, for those weeds, lifestyle degradation and for Bieberophilia the inevitable peer ridicule (unless you're a ten-year old girl, of course). For chocolate lovers there is the insidious concern about calories and cholesterol. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips, they say. Gents don't tend to accumulate subcutaneous fat on that part of their anatomy but overindulgence in chocolate with its 20-plus kilojoules per gram can add to the visceral deposits around one's waistline that lead to the tell-tale "pot belly" of those with calorific vices.


As with any vice — Bieber, brews, or bars of chocolate — those who partake to excess will have a trove of excuses, a veritable cache of justifications as to why their particular depravity is "actually not that bad for you, really, and actually in some ways is actually good for you ..." Red wine drinkers have their claims on cardiovascular benefits, they cite the so-called French paradox whereby that nation allegedly has lower incidence of heart disease despite a high-fat diet because of red wine consumption.


The paradox seemingly ignores the obvious problems of increased liver disease, as well as the fact that the French have not had a high-fat diet for very long, it's almost certainly something that grew after World War II rather than being an ancient culinary custom. Moreover, red wine consumption seems to be on the wane, so it will be interesting to see how health pans out in coming years. Likewise, cannabis users talk of pain relief, stress reduction, and medical marijuana, ignoring the myriad toxic molecules in every puff of smoke from any kind of burned inhalation. Bieber? I don't think anyone has yet devised an excuse ...


Chocolate as a Superfruit


For chocoholics there are many fair warnings regarding cholesterol, fat etc., but they too have devised their own justifications and there is a growing number of research studies pointing to supposed health benefits and even endowing cocoa beans, from which chocolate is derived, as being a "superfruit". Strictly speaking, cocoa beans are the seeds from the fruit of Theobroma cacao rather than the fruit itself. Intriguingly, however, much of the research currently being touted by public relations companies, rather than academic scientists, has the financial support of well-known chocolate manufacturers behind it. To my mind, that does not bode well for impartiality, regardless of the integrity of the independent scientists involved. Is the sponsor likely to allow the scientists to publish negative data that debunks the superfruit claims? I doubt it. Interestingly, there are even those in the industry who have, over the last few years, criticized the hyperbole regarding the supposed health benefits.


Not all research into the health benefits of chocolate is associated with a manufacturer, of course. There is much independent work investigating the cocoa flavonoids, for instance, found at high levels, particularly in "dark" chocolate. Flavonoids include flavones, flavonols, anthocyanins, and flavanols, many of which are present in other vegetables and tea. Some studies seem to suggest a connection with lower blood pressure, improved vascular function and increased sensitivity to insulin (i.e. reduced risk of diabetes). Of course, some of the studies rely on self-reporting by the participants over long periods of time and must take into account countless other factors that can confound any complex epidemiological study. After all, the fat and sugar content of most chocolate products aside, there are other lifestyle factors to be considered, such as smoking, diet and exercise (or lack thereof).


Press releases announcing the benefits of chocolate talk of proof, but the body's response to any given food is far too complex for us to see anything as proven. Admittedly, a lack of vitamin C in the diet has been proven to cause scurvy, and vitamin C, or ascorbic acid from citrus fruit or other sources, will effectively treat scurvy (the clue is in the name ascorbic). Much harder to determine is whether a mega-dose of the vitamin will impact on life-long cancer risks. There are other similar examples. Equally, flavonoids do have various physiological activities.


Cardiovascular Benefits and Addiction


One paper reported that flavanol-rich cocoa administration reduces mean blood pressure by 4.5 mm (systolic) and 2.5 mm diastolic; the paper mentions that a 3 mm reduction of systolic reduces cardiovascular disease risk and mortality, but does not give figures on absolute risk reduction. The notion of cocoa being a superfruit that will save chocoholics from heart attacks will most likely never be proven because the issue is too complex and it is impossible to control for the many other factors influencing cardiovascular health and disease risk, not to mention the concurrent consumption of sugar and cocoa fat.


Then there is theobromine, the chemical cousin of caffeine, but present in much larger quantities in chocolate. The toxicity of theobromine is well known to dog lovers, but it has been researched very little in people because it was assumed to be behaviourally inert. However, there is no reason to assume this is the case — is it possible this could be the chemical underpinning chocoholism? Some researchers believe it is our conflicting attitudes towards chocolate, which lends this ‘naughty but nice’ food an ambivalence that is the cause of cravings for chocolate. For those that perceive this to be a problem, the answer appears to lie in not rejecting chocolate, but allowing oneself to have a few pieces a day — and preferably dark chocolate at that.


Either way, there are some things that are simply too nice to give up, and I was pleased to find out we chocoholics do not need to give up chocolate. Nevertheless, we chocoholics ought to unite and stand by our excuses ... even if there is a risk of increasing one's waistline in so doing. But, no matter how hard one tries, you will not find a similarly trite justification for Bieberophilia.


► Also of interest:

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