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Chocolate is more than good taste

Yes, it’s irresistible. But “Today” food expert Phil Lempert says it may also be good for you.
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Chocolate. There’s something undeniably mystical and irresistible about chocolate. The word itself is sensual and romantic. The creamy, silky texture, the deep, dark, elegant color, the exquisitely sweet, rich flavor, the tantalizing aroma — the seductive characteristics of chocolate can arouse the senses and send one’s pulse racing to new heights. And it may even be good for you. “Today” food expert Phil Lempert has the details.

THE EXPERIENCE OF a forbidden piece of pure chocolate deliberately melting on the tip of your tongue is sheer ecstasy, one of life’s most pleasurable moments. No wonder chocolate is often referred to as decadent and why it was forbidden in strict religious groups. Aztecs considered all chocolate an aphrodisiac. Because of this, all foods made with chocolate were strictly forbidden to women. Indulging in the luxurious stuff feels so good it must be bad!

We went to the New York Chocolate Show, checked out all the new products and then stood in the first row of an all-chocolate fashion show by designer Nicole Miller.

What we found is that besides great taste, chocolate just may be good for us! New research shows that the enticing chocolate morsels are potent little packages of health-conferring chemicals. Chocolate may prevent free radical damage, which can lead to cancer, prevent heart disease, enhance our immune system, and give us a feeling of well being.

Over 3,000 years ago, Mayans and Aztecs of the Americas cultivated cacao beans from the tree Cacao theobroma, of which chocolate is made. Like some other plant foods, chocolate is chock full of a wide range of antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, including the procyanidins epicatechin and catechin. Fruit, vegetables, wine, and tea have polyphenolic flavonoids as well, but amazingly polyphenols are found in much higher abundance in chocolate and cocoa. The amount of polyphenols in milk chocolate is equivalent to that of five servings of fruits and vegetables.

The following is the measurement of the polyphenol content in 1.25 ounces of cocoa products:

Milk chocolate - 300 mg

Dark chocolate - 700 mg

Cocoa powder - 1,300 mg

So what do these polyphenols do? Polyphenols have several effects on the body. As mentioned before, polyphenols are antioxidants. Antioxidants help the body’s cells resist damage from free radicals, which are formed in normal body processes as well as by environmental pollution, poor diet, alcohol and drug use, and smoking. Free radicals can damage cells, thereby causing cancer and accelerated aging of the body systems.

Polyphenols can also prevent cardiovascular disease. Polyphenols in cocoa minimize the oxidation of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease such as heart attack and stroke. Reducing the oxidation rate of LDL cholesterol may be just as important as reducing the level of LDL cholesterol. Polyphenols also help inhibit platelet aggregation and activation, meaning it helps prevent platelets from clumping together, therefore reducing the risk of atherosclerosis. Cocoa polyphenols also seem to thin the blood, which slows the rate of coagulation, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Preliminary studies show that cocoa polyphenols may even enhance immune function. Not only does it protect from free radicals, which damage body system and function, polyphenols may even enhance the proliferation and activation of T-lymphocytes — white blood cells that fight infections and regulate other immune responses.

Now what is it about chocolate that makes so many of us swoon? Sometimes we get these intense cravings for chocolate. We’re feeling moody and irritable, even depressed, but once we eat some good chocolate, we feel better. It turns out that chocolate is a mood-enhancer after all. Chocolate contains phenethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the nervous system, triggering the release of endorphins, opiate-like compounds that dull pain and give a sense of well being.

But the jury is still out on whether the high fat and sugar content are factors for this response. There are also chemicals in chocolate that increase the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly associated with feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure. Additionally, chocolate can also boost brain levels of serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, especially in women who tend to be more sensitive to chocolate than men. And yet another way chocolate can make us feel good is by inhibiting the natural breakdown of anandamide, a neurotransmitter normally found small amounts in the brain which can produce a feeling of euphoria. Scientists question whether the concentrations of these chemicals present in chocolate can actually produce a significant affect on our moods. But many women will contend that research or no research, satisfying a chocolate craving can work wonders.

Sounds like eating chocolate has a lot of benefits. But it sounds too good to be true.

What about the fat and sugar in chocolate? Aren’t they bad for our hearts and detrimental to our waistlines? It is true that chocolate tends to be high in fat and sugar. But depending on the kind of fat in the chocolate, it might not be too hard on your arteries. Good quality chocolates are made with cocoa butter, a fat composed of approximately one-third proportions of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat like in olive oil, and stearic acid and palmitic acid, which are saturated fats. Oleic acid has been shown to lower both total and LDL cholesterol. And interestingly, although stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid (SFA), unlike other SFAs, it does not seem to affect blood cholesterol. Palmitic acid, however, does raise blood cholesterol, so even good quality chocolate should be eaten in moderation. Remember, not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, so be sure to read labels.

Most of us wouldn’t eat unsweetened chocolate, and the sugar content in chocolate is high. Refined sugar in chocolate stacks up the empty calories, can send our blood sugar levels through the roof, and yes, large amounts can make us fat. Again, chocolate in moderation is fine, but an even better alternative is sugar-free chocolate made for diabetics.

Chocolate contains stimulants such as caffeine. One 1.5 ounce bar of dark chocolate contains about 30 milligrams of caffeine, milk chocolate contains 10 mg, and an 8 ounce serving of hot cocoa contains 5 mg. In comparison, an 8 ounce serving of brewed coffee contains 135 mg of caffeine, 12 ounces of Mountain Dew contains about 56 mg, and cola contains about 35 mg. Another caffeine-like stimulant in chocolate is theobromine, which can cause fatal cardiac stress in dogs, so be sure to keep the chocolates away from Fido. Theobromine is actually weaker than caffeine, and it doesn’t have a strong effect on humans. Chocolate also contains healthful nutrients, such as the minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, which are essential for normal biological functions, growth, metabolism, and oxygen transport.

So, is chocolate a health food? At this point, there are still more studies to be done before we know for sure that different forms of chocolate are good for us, what kind of a long term impact eating certain amounts of chocolate can have on us, and whether all people are affected by chocolate in the same way. And with as much fat and sugar as there is in a typical chocolate bar, there is no way chocolate could be considered a health food.

However, if you want to get the benefits of chocolate without the fat and sugar, go for the fat-free and sugar-free types. When you do want to indulge, choose the darkest, richest chocolate you can find made with quality cocoa butter. Chocolatiers such as Godiva, Chocolove, Chocolates El Rey, and many European chocolatiers make dark chocolates containing 70 percent or more cocoa. The average chocolate bar contains about 40 percent. The higher the cocoa content the more beneficial the bar.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: