February 1, 2008

By johnmac

The month of February brings us Valentine’s Day. One of the most popular Valentine’s gifts is the traditional heart-shaped box of chocolates. Ironically, in addition to the long-standing Valentine’s connection between hearts and chocolate, there is a more recent health connection. If you are a chocolate lover, you are in luck. In the past several years, there has been a growing body of evidence that consuming chocolate in small quantities (I repeat, small quantities) offers specific health benefits – with heart health currently topping the list. Before you run out to stock up on chocolate, be aware that not all chocolate is created equal.

The health benefits of chocolate come from the flavonoids (most commonly, epicatechin) contained in the cocoa beans. These flavonoids have strong anti-oxidant effects. Unfortunately, the flavonoids are destroyed with processing. Dark chocolate has the most flavonoids – almost 4 times more than milk chocolate. White chocolate is not a source of flavonoids as it contains neither cocoa solids or chocolate liquor.  Most countries do not consider it to be chocolate at all – even the FDA does not classify white chocolate as chocolate.

It is best to eat chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa. With any chocolate, always read the ingredients and make sure that cocoa is listed first. Many commercial chocolates and chocolate bars list sugar before cocoa. These bars offer few health benefits and will contribute to a growing waist-line. Note that cocoa beans are approximately 50% fat. Although a significant amount of this fat is the monounsaturated oil, oleic acid (the same fatty acid contained by olive oil and known to offer heart healthy benefits), moderation is key with any high fat food.

The book “Foods That Fight Cancer”, written by Richard Beliveau, Ph.D., and Denis Gingras, Ph.D, includes a chapter entitled “Chocolate: A Healthy Obsession”. This chapter explains the history of chocolate, the science behind its health benefits and is summarized with the following two points:

  • Dark Chocolate, which contains 70% cocoa mass, supplies the body with important amounts of polyphenols potentially capable of exercising beneficial effects on chronic illnesses, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • The daily consumption of two 20-gram squares of chocolate that is 70% cocoa mass may have definite health benefits and should replace or reduce that of sugar- and fat-filled candies with no phytochemical content.

The potential health benefits of good quality dark chocolate emerging from recent research include:

  • A decreased risk in cardiovascular disease (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2007; Archive of Internal Medicine, 2006)
  • A decrease in blood pressure and cholesterol (Journal of the American Medical Association, July 4 2007)
  • A positive effect on psychological well-being (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007)

Unfortunately, not all the news about chocolate is good news. In her book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, award-winning author and broadcaster Carol Off, exposes the unethical history of the cocoa industry. Almost half of cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Some cocoa farmers have resorted to abusive labour practices (including child labour and trafficking) in order to “compensate” for the labor intensive harvesting and preparation of cocoa beans, as well as the extremely low price of the beans brought about by economic and government forces. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of fair-trade dark chocolate products available.

One of my favourite brands of chocolate is Cocoa Camino.  Cocoa Camino offers a delicious and unique variety of premium Fair Trade Certified and certified organic chocolate and cocoa products produced by La Siembra Co-operative. La Siembra’s mission is to offer high-quality Fair Trade Certified organic products that improve the livelihoods of family farmers and the well-being of communities at home and abroad.  To find a retailer in your area that sells Cocoa Camino products, visit:

Finally, keep in mind that health promoting antioxidants are found in numerous other food sources – especially fruits and vegetables – and that these sources should not be replaced by chocolate! Remember that along with its health benefits, chocolate is still a source of calories, fat and sugar. More is not better! As with most things in life, moderation is key; however, it’s great to know that there is a healthy choice with good quality dark chocolate….and luckily (or unluckily for us chocolate lovers!), only a small amount can provide big health benefits.



Foods That Fight Cancer: Preventing Cancer Through DietRichard Beliveau, Ph.D., Denis Gingras, Ph.D., McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 2006. ISBN 0-7710-1135-0


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