Finding Your Personal Best Chocolate (January 20, 2014)
If you are of a certain age, as the French novelists used to so delicately put it, you probably remember "Sleeper". That is Woody Allen’s movie about the future. You might even remember this historical bit of dialogue. (You probably also remember when you could be a fan of Woody Allen without being ashamed of it, but I digress).
Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
Anyway, despite what they think they know in the future, not all chocolate products are healthy. So if healthy is what we are aiming for, that means that we have to start thinking, painful as that might be. My in-depth research this past week (which, in the interests of Science, included several chocolate bar purchases) told me that there are three problems with healthy chocolate. They are:
It can easily cost $2 a day or more for a product that will give you a daily dose of about 200 mg flavanols, which is currently thought to be an adequate amount to get the cardiovascular benefits. That’s about 2.5 grams of high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10 grams of high-flavanol dark chocolate, neither of which are available in the United States, thank you very much. Here on the frontier, we are looking at one- to one-and-a-quarter tablespoons of cocoa powder or one-and-a-half to two ounces of minimum 72% dark chocolate candy for an adequate “dose” of flavanols.
You can buy cocoa flavanols in capsule form, which surprisingly are inexpensive (relatively). Also you can just swallow them, which bypasses the bitterness problem. But not only would you generally need to swallow a lot of pills to get enough flavanols, you would be consuming flavanols only. Cocoa (and the studies have mostly been done with various cocoa preparations, not its flavanol extracts) has hundreds of other ingredients. Just three of those ingredients are resveratrol, anansamide and theobromine, all of which have their own documented health benefits, and there are all kinds of minerals and pretty good fatty acids besides. Plus, cocoa, even prepared in a form that concentrates its flavanols, is still food. When you start isolating what seem to be the active ingredients in a helpful food from the supporting cast of molecules that are found with them in nature, it's a whole new ballgame, as we found with beta carotene supplements. I would stick with a cocoa preparation for that reason.
Most of the information today I got from ConsumerLab, which is a great website that tests all kinds of products and tells you the results as long as you pay them. Here are a few things they had to say about cocoa flavanols.
Why does a higher percentage of cocoa not automatically mean more flavanols? Several reasons, but mainly because in food manufacturing, “cocoa” or “cacao” refers not to cocoa powder alone, but to cocoa powder PLUS cocoa butter, and cocoa butter has no flavanols. Some manufacturers use more fat than others and you can’t tell this from the label. You have to know ahead of time what you are buying in this particular department.
Predictably there has been quite a bit of pushback from the manufacturers that ConsumerLab tagged on this subject. Corporate lawyers earning their keep is all well and good, but I would stick with the products that didn't need apologies. There were only two of those -- CocoVia and Reserveage CocoaWell True Energy. (ConsumerLab also said Hershey’s Natural was probably ok as long as you limited your consumption to once daily.)
The CocoVia brand of powder (sold in boxes of little packets, each packet containing about 375 mg of flavanols) is made by Mars Chocolate, the same folks who make the cocoa product being used in those very impressive studies I cited a couple of weeks ago. If you are trying to keep calories to a minimum, this is probably the way to go (although here we are talking about $1.50-$2.00 a day).
Interestingly, ConsumerLab’s overall recommendation was to go with dark chocolate bars, since those were the most economical way to obtain the most flavanols AND to avoid heavy metals at the same time. (See that? You’re being FORCED to eat actual chocolate. Oh, the humanity!)
The most cost-effective eating (versus cooking) chocolate bar was "Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate with 88% Cocoa". They say 53 cents/91 calories here gets you enough flavanols. Next was "Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% Cacao" (61 cents/111 calories), which was a little more palatable than the Endangered Species bar. "Trader Joe’s 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate" came in third and was roughly equivalent to the Ghirardelli bar. (Remember that with chocolate candy we are talking 100-250 calories for 200 grams of flavanols, versus 30 calories for an equivalent amount from pure cocoa powder.)
A couple of other things some people might need or want to consider:
In fact, always read labels. It’s amazing what a manufacturer will sneak into a “healthy” product.
And just one more thing:
And that's it. I hope I haven't beaten this topic of chocolate to death. But how often does something you like turn out to be good for you? Well, actually, coffee and wine come to mind. Maybe it's excess that's the real enemy.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2015