A bittersweet chocolate debate

New research suggests chocolate may be good for you, but it may be even better for marketing

Chocolate may be a good source of antioxidants, but that doesn’t mean hot chocolate has become a health drink.
Chocolate may be a good source of antioxidants, but that doesn’t mean hot chocolate has become a health drink.
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Over the past couple weeks you might have found yourself indulging in some tasty holiday season leftovers, but don’t be too hard on yourself—some research says rich and creamy chocolate treats might be better for you than you thought.

A number of studies suggest your sweetest guilty pleasure might actually have some health benefits.

For the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, drinking cocoa beverages was found to make these islanders nine times less likely to develop heart disease than people living in mainland Panama, said Sarah Dick, Leonard Cafeteria assistant manager.

Dick said it can in fact be beneficial as an antioxidant.

“Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains antioxidants known as polyphenols or flavonols,” Dick said.

She said these flavonols preserve the healthy function of blood vessels, in turn lowering the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and dementia. Flavonols are a class of the antioxidant chemical compound flavonoids.

Though you can find antioxidants in other foods, chocolate might actually be more powerful, she said.

“Very new research on chocolate has found that it contains even more flavonoids than red wine or green tea,” Dick said.

But that doesn’t mean you should turn to your favourite chocolate bar as a new health food. Dick said cocoa is the source of chocolate’s antioxidant concentration, but chocolate loses its health benefits when processed.

Dark chocolate contains fewer antioxidants than cocoa powder, and milk and white chocolates contain virtually no antioxidants. Dick said although chocolate might be touted as a healthy choice, too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. She said many experts say only one ounce of dark chocolate or cocoa powder should be consumed daily for optimal health benefits.

“Many of the traditional chocolate bars that we consume as part of a westernized diet are very high in saturated fats, which are associated with negative health,” she said. Lee Fisher-Goodchild, co-ordinator of Health Education and Health Promotion Programs, is also a little skeptical about the suggestion that eating chocolate might improve your health.

“I truly wish we could improve our health by eating chocolate, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Fisher-Goodchild said.

“Most of the chocolate we eat has way too much bad stuff in it—sugar, saturated fat, additives—to be healthy and even the best sources have small amounts of flavonoids.” Instead, Fisher-Goodchild said there are probably better ways to get those antioxidants.

“Fruits and vegetables are still our best source of flavonoids, and even coffee and tea, which also contain flavonoids, are a better choice than your average chocolate bar,” she said. According to Fisher-Goodchild, even though dark chocolate might have some health benefits, we should be careful of where that information comes from.

“Most of the literature claiming genuine health benefits from eating chocolate are written by sources promoting something,” Fisher-Goodchild said.

“The scientific literature is much more guarded about actual benefits and they acknowledge the limitations of the studies.”

As far as most chocolate products go, Fisher-Goodchild said the unhealthy effects are more likely to outweigh the healthy.

“Most chocolate we eat combines cocoa—although it may be refined to the point of having next to no flavonoids left in it—with fat and sugar. It can be argued that the net health impact of eating chocolate is negative, with the fat and sugar being more harmful than the flavonoids are helpful.”

English Professor Heather Evans, who has done extensive work on food in literature, said there’s a long history behind chocolate as an indulgence before it really emerged in the mainstream as a healthy food.

“It is an enormous product with a history of several years,” Evans said. “As far as the health benefit, that is something that has attracted a lot of attention in the last few years.”

Evans said it would be too difficult to pinpoint any one reason why we love chocolate so much, but it has established a reputation of a decadent food.

“There is all the decadence associated with spending money on something you don’t really need. It has that allure of something that seems naughty yet has been sanctioned by popular culture.” But chocolate is also a sign of social decadence. Evans said the new book Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Indulgent Sweet by Carol Off explores some of the ways chocolate is an indulgence that exploits other cultures.

“Chocolate has been literally a kind of blood food,” she said, explaining that people across the world earn pennies a day labouring in cocoa to make a product they’ve never ever tasted.

“Globally it’s an exploitive indulgence.”

But in the Western market, chocolate is justified as an indulgence. Evans said casting chocolate as healthy helps to alleviate the guilt associated with anything that is marked as a treat.

“That it seems to be wholesome and nourishing, that helps,” she said.

“Certainly in the last decade we have seen that kind of [healthy] marketing and so many of the marketing campaigns promote it as something that is essential to your well-being, something that you need to feel good.

“We do want to feel good about what we’re eating.”

But no matter why we eat it, chocolate has found a prominent place universal spot on our tables.

“If you announce to anybody you don’t like chocolate, the whole table will turn and look at you.”

Hear something interesting?

Send the fruits of your eavesdropping to the Journal’s Overheard in Kingston. E-mail journal_postscript@ams.queensu.ca.

Kingston’s Best Cocoa

Although it’s hard to find a cup of pure cocoa to sip on these days, these less healthy alternatives promise to satisfy your chocolate cravings.

Sleepless Goat

At the Sleepless Goat you can enjoy a big bowl of dark hot chocolate.

“We start with a fancy chocolate syrup. The company is Chiradelli and it’s by far the best chocolate syrup I’ve ever found,” said Sleepless Goat Baker Randi Rudner.

They mix that syrup with steamed milk and garnish the beverage with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.

Rudner said it’s the quality of the chocolate they’re using that sets their drink apart.

“It’s not made from a powder or pre-made,” she said.

Price: $2.30
Grade: A-

This creamy hot chocolate has a dark chocolate flavour without being bitter.

Sipps

Sipps owner Paula Gibson said they also make their hot chocolate from Chiradelli chocolate.

“Ours is definitely made with one of the best chocolates because it is a well-known chocolate company. And we make it with love,” she said.

Sipps steams their milk, blends it with the chocolate and tops it off with whipped cream and even more chocolate.

Sipps customers can choose their flavour of choice.

“We have dark chocolate. We also have white chocolate and some people like to do half and half,” Gibson said.

“The dark chocolate can be a bit bitter and [the white chocolate] just takes that edge off the bitterness.”

Price: $2.40
Grade: B

Sipps serves a lighter, foamier hot chocolate, but with less chocolate flavour.

Coffee & Company

Barista Jonathan Woods said the secret to Coffee & Company’s hot chocolate is combining the sweetness of a chocolate syrup with a chocolate powder.

“I’d love to see us making it with real chocolate but it’s a very expensive process,” he said.

Instead, they use syrup from Italy containing Dutch cocoa.

Woods said he steams the chocolate in the milk instead of pouring the hot milk in the powder in order to get the lumps out. Then, he finishes the drink off with a vanilla cream and a drizzle of chocolate over the top.

“The care that’s taken is a little bit more than most places.”

Price: $2.50
Grade: A+

This sweet, chocolately hot cocoa is smooth and easy to drink.

Pan Chancho

Server Jessie Lindley at Pan Chancho Bakery said they serve up their own unique hot chocolate blend.

The hot chocolate starts with organic cocoa, white sugar and a little bit of cinnamon.

“We mix that with steamed milk with fresh whipped cream on top and dark chocolate shavings,” she said.

This chocolate concoction can be served up in a regular cup or a large bowl.

Lindley said the bakery’s hot cocoa beverage is so good because they make the mix themselves.

“What makes it the best is we make it from scratch,” she said.

“It’s a real homemade hot chocolate.”

Price: $3.25
Grade: A

The real cocoa in Pan Chancho’s drink makes it a thick, rich beverage and the cinnamon provides a little extra depth of flavour.

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