- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

Chocolate products, including the bunnies and eggs of the season, may get knocked for their calories, fat and sugar, but chocolate’s source — cacao — contains important vitamins and minerals and has antioxidant properties.

“Chocolate is a food,” says registered dietitian Robyn Flipse, a nutrition consultant for food and pharmaceutical companies, including Masterfoods USA in Hackettstown, N.J., a part of Mars Inc.

“There is no good reason to eliminate or remove it from our diet. We deserve to get enjoyment from it.”

Ms. Flipse and other nutritionists and dietitians debate chocolate’s healthfulness and whether it can be considered an addictive substance.

Chocolate is made from different types of cacao beans that are fermented, dried and roasted. The inner nib, or kernel, of the bean is ground, releasing the bean’s natural fat, called cocoa butter. The remaining cocoa solids are processed to make unsweetened cocoa powder.

“If you were just eating cocoa powder, you could eat a lot of it. The sugars are the problem,” says Sara Ducey, associate professor of nutrition at Montgomery College in Rockville.

Milk chocolate contains 12 percent milk solids and at least 10 percent chocolate mass or chocolate liquor, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sweet chocolate contains at least 15 percent chocolate liquor, and bittersweet or semisweet chocolate at least 35 percent, as defined by the department. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa liquor or cocoa powder and consists of at least 20 percent cocoa butter, the USDA says.

Chocolate high in cocoa solids (cocoa powder, cocoa butter and cocoa liquor) contains small amounts of vitamins A, B1, C, D and E and trace amounts of minerals, including iron, calcium and potassium. Chocolate is a source of magnesium and contains some fiber and protein.

Mrs. Ducey recommends top-quality dark chocolate.

“We are looking for the deep, dark ones that are very, very rich. Most people, when they have top-end of chocolate, [find that] less of it is needed to be satisfying,” she says.

Dark chocolate, which is processed less, contains more nutrients and flavonoids than milk and white chocolate, Mrs. Ducey says.

Flavonoids are antioxidants that help protect cells from oxidative damage, boost immune function, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, metro-area nutritionists and dietitians say.

Poor quality chocolate has less cocoa and typically contains more sugars and partially hydrogenated or saturated fat, Mrs. Ducey says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of fat in chocolate is saturated fat,” says Susan Baum, nutrition manager for Inova Health Source in Fairfax.

Saturated fat, which is added to chocolate as a solidifying agent and for flavor, can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, Mrs. Baum says.

“Chocolate seems to be a double-edged sword,” she says, pointing out chocolate’s flavonoids and saturated fat. “I don’t know which wins out.”

Some companies are researching ways to make chocolate more healthful.

Masterfoods, the maker of M&Ms;, Milky Way and Snickers, researched a way to protect the flavonoids in chocolate, which can be destroyed during processing, and patented the process the company developed, Ms. Flipse says.

Chocolate traditionally is processed using heat and an alkaline treatment to reduce the bitter taste in the cacao bean, but Masterfoods reduced the temperature and cooking time and made other processing changes to retain the flavonoids in its products, she says.

In addition, Masterfoods has introduced Cocoavia, chocolates labeled “heart-healthy” that also are low in fat and calories.

Godiva Chocolatier Inc. is reviewing the flavonoid content in its chocolates but does not have a product similar to Masterfoods’ Cocoavia. Instead, Godiva is using a variety of ingredients to increase the nutritional value of its chocolates, such as combining honey and cashews or coconut and lemon, says Jody Klocko, chef chocolatier for Godiva North America in the Philadelphia area.

“Our recipe is never final,” Mr. Klocko says.

Dr. Neal Barnard doubts that chocolate has any worthwhile benefits.

“Whatever benefits there may be to it, unfortunately, they are outweighed by its caloric content, which is high,” says Dr. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical School in Northwest.

Also, Dr. Barnard says, chocolate acts like a drug and stimulates the brain.

“The taste of chocolate on the tongue triggers a nerve impulse that goes to the base of the brain and triggers the release of opiates [which give pleasure] within the brain. It happens before the chocolate has even reached your stomach,” he says.

Dr. Barnard defines chocolate addiction as wanting the sweet on a daily basis, feeling a compulsion to eat it and paying a price for it, such as weight gain, increased cholesterol levels or migraine headaches.

Research shows that giving the opiate-blocking drug Naloxone to those “addicted” to chocolate lowers their desire for the sweet, he says.

Chocolate contains small quantities of caffeine and theobromine, a weak stimulant, along with phenylethylamine (PEA), a stimulant related to amphetamines found in sausage and some cheeses. PEA helps elevate serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain.

Psychology professor Debra Zellner questions chocolate’s addictiveness.

“There are certainly things found to be addicting in chocolate. However, it’s not clear if there is enough of those substances that would make it addicting,” says Ms. Zellner, professor of psychology at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. She holds a doctorate in psychology.

Ms. Zellner found from her research that craving chocolate is cultural and not biological. For example, Americans crave chocolate more than people in Spain and Egypt, two countries she studied.

Loving a food or craving it is different from an addiction, says Leah Porter, vice president of scientific affairs for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association in Vienna.

“Chocolate’s appeal is due to aroma, flavor and creaminess, not any addictive properties,” says Ms. Porter, who holds a doctorate in plant sciences. “If it’s addictive, then other foods are addictive.”

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