Chocolate Update (July 25, 2017)
It seems like it was only yesterday. But it was actually well over a year ago that I threw off all inhibitions and devoted a series of three newsletters to chocolate, its health benefits and how best to acquire them. I yearn for those light-hearted days, and I think that it is time to revisit the subject. Science marches on, after all.
Or so I assumed. But apparently the big research study which is being performed by Mars (yes, THAT Mars. No, not the planet. Or the god. The candy company) is not due to be finished until some time in 2020. And the big guns involved in this study (among them NIH and Pfizer) are so huge that they've frightened everyone else out of this area of research, at least for the time being. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to be said.
To begin with, chocolate is still good for you. Or at least no one is trying to make a career out of asserting otherwise. So we can assume that the benefits that have been observed to date are valid.
And of course, just as before, it still isn’t ALL chocolate that is good for you. There is a PART of chocolate that seems to be good for you, and that part is the group of antioxidants known as flavanols (which is also what Mars is focusing on in its research). The trick, then, is to get as good a dose of flavanols as possible out of your chocolate. And flavanol supplements may actually be a good way to go here.
Now, as I have complained before, this is the point at which the powers that be usually step in a pile. Chocolate is a food, health benefits were first observed from the consumption of this food as a whole, and flavanols are just a part of that food. But pharmaceutical companies are not permitted to patent decent, natural, normal things, and they wouldn’t even if they could, because that is not what they do. So their practice is to immediately ask, “what it is about this seemingly healthy thing here that actually makes it healthy?” and try to tweeze it out. Thus began the research into flavanols.
Interestingly enough, however, it seems that this time there may actually be some validity to this approach. Probably at least partly because in order to make those bitter chocolate flavanols yummy, we normally add copious amounts of sugar, fats, and chemicals, all of which have (and I’m being generous here) less benefit than the original cocoa. Plus, it looks like no one is trying to find THE Flavanol. They are extracting and testing these antioxidants as a group, as they are found in nature. Maybe the nutrition scientists HAVE learned something from the beta-carotene and resveratrol fiascoes.
It is well established, then, that we know that isolated flavanols and high-flavanol chocolate (which is always dark chocolate of some type) have positive effects in different aspects of body function. Enough to show that they may be of benefit in mood disorders, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and – facial wrinkles. That last one is absolutely true. And you don't have to rub it on your face -- you can EAT IT! Ha!
This all brings us back to our original problem of how to get the most flavanols without spending the big bucks, and with a minimum of calories as well. But we’ve got something a bit new to think about here – and that is how to get these benefits WITHOUT HEAVY METALS. As it turns out, a lot of the cocoa products out there that you’d otherwise want to use as a source of flavanols contain a lot of cadmium.
Cadmium is a rather nasty metal in the same class as mercury and lead. It owes some recent fame to having prompted a recall of McDonald’s children’s drinking glasses (nice work, McDonald's). Cadmium is a known carcinogen that accumulates in the bones, and needless to say is to be avoided as much as possible. And its presence is a real problem in chocolate.
What chocolate/flavanol products have cadmium and which don’t? Well, the food manufacturers aren't saying, since they decided a while back that "Now with extra cadmium!” wasn't a winning slogan for cocoa powder. And it does not have to be listed on the label. I will be able to tell you, though, because of my handy ConsumerLab subscription.
Not only does a flavanol supplement happen to be a great way to get a lot of good cheap flavanols, it turns out as well to minimize cadmium. When you extract those flavanols properly, the cadmium stays behind. (Interestingly this appears to be the case as well for turmeric and curcumin, which is something that I definitely intend to get around to discussing very soon.)
So the CocoaVia capsules, just like last time, come out ahead. Even straight un-dutched cocoa powder has a cadmium downside. Even (and it breaks my heart to say this) the one made by Trader Joe’s.
But if you prefer your chocolate in a bar instead of in a pill, and certainly if you are just going to be picking up a chocolate bar now and then, Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with 88% Cocoa is the best on all three counts. Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% CaCao and Chocolove Extra Strong 72% Cocoa Content were a little pricier but otherwise good. Not that other chocolates are going to kill you. But if you are eating enough chocolate to get therapeutic doses of the flavanols (200-320 mg daily), for the time being please stick to the above-cited products.
And if you are going to wing it alone through chocolate territory, don't go by percent cocoa content; that is NOT analogous to flavanol content, due to (most likely) way different processing methods between manufacturers. Also, don't assume that organic is better. Organic chocolates had more cadmium, on average, than non-organic chocolate in the ConsumerLab analyses. That is all shocking, I know. But I'm just the messenger here.
That's it for my update. I hope you find it deliciously useful.
--dr. diane holmes
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