Chocolate: Forbidden Fruit
March 1, 2011
by Rebeca López-García, Ph.D.
Thousands of years ago, Aztecs believed in the nourishing, fortifying and aphrodisiac qualities of cocoa and considered it food for gods. However, its high fat and sugar content and image as a sinful treat had relegated chocolate to the ranks of forbidden treats. Recent research has helped restore chocolate to its Aztec glory. According to Katy Cole, technical services manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lititz, PA, chocolate is a great ingredient that can promote health benefits for a number of reasons. Foremost, it simply tastes great. There is nothing new about that, so let’s explore the traits behind chocolate’s new status as a health food.
According to numerous studies published in prestigious journals, chocolate’s antioxidants (mainly flavonols — also known as flavan-3-ols or catechins — and particularly the monomeric flavonoid, epicatechin) have the ability to protect health through an overwhelming variety of mechanisms. In fact, very recently, a report published Feb. 7 by Hershey’s scientists in Chemistry Central Journal declares it the new superfruit because of its antioxidant content. When cocoa powder and chocolate were compared with powders derived from acai, blueberry, cranberry and pomegranate, measures of antioxidant activity demonstrated that dark chocolate’s antioxidant capacity was greater, on a per-serving basis, than all other products tested other than pomegranate to which its levels were similar.
Chocolate’s antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress and prevent cell damage that speeds the aging process. A study published in 2010 by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that daily cocoa flavonol consumption more than doubled the number of circulating angiogenic cells (CACs) that are responsible for blood vessel repair and maintenance. According to the authors, this is the first study to demonstrate the benefits of dietary intervention to increase CACs that shows substantial benefits from cocoa consumption without any observed adverse effects. The research concluded that drinking high-flavonol cocoa significantly reduces systolic blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Furthermore, Food and Health Laboratories, a research group that is part of Meiji Seika Kaisha, Tokyo, Japan, reported that cocoa boosts the levels of apolipoprotein A1 (apo A1), which is required to produce HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). Another study published in the
British Journal of Nutrition reported that consumption of dark chocolate containing 860 mg of polyphenols and 58 mg of epicatechin led to 20% reduction in DNA damage two hours after consumption — adding to the evidence that supports the cardiovascular benefits of chocolate.
Rose Potts, corporate manager, sensory and product guidance, Blommer Chocolate Co., Chicago, IL, also stated that in addition to the antioxidants, chocolate is the No. 1 source of copper in the American diet. A copper deficiency can also contribute to cardiovascular disease. Chocolate also contains magnesium, which can help reduce stress, as well as potassium, which helps lower blood pressure.
Last year, a report presented at the International Liver Congress showed that dark chocolate’s antioxidants reduce postprandial blood pressure in the liver associated with damaged liver blood vessels. Another study published in an American Heart Association journal showed that women who ate an average of one to two servings of high-quality chocolate per week had a 32% lower risk of developing heart failure, and those who had one to three servings per month had a 26% lower risk.
Using a metabolomics technique, Nestlé scientists also found that daily consumption of 40 g of dark chocolate for only two weeks significantly changes the metabolism of healthy free-living individuals as well as their gut microflora. This was observed through the reduction of levels of stress-associated hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These results are quite interesting since cortisol is released during times of stress and triggers a hunger response in the brain that signals cells to store as much fat as possible. High levels of cortisol have been associated with the accumulation of health-endangering
abdominal fat. In addition, the study reported an increase growth of Lactobacillus spp. in response to cocoa flavonols showing potential gastrointestinal benefits. The changes in the lactobacilli numbers were also associated with reductions in levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation related to heart health.
Cocoa flavonoids have been reported to increase the antioxidant activity in the brain, improving cell communication. Ms. Potts stated that the anti-inflammatory effects of chocolate can help increase blood flow to the brain and circulation to help mental acuity as well as protect against amyloid plaque damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Cocoa compounds have been shown to induce a calm feeling by affecting serotonin levels and produce a natural chemical called anandamide that acts as a euphoric natural painkiller. Thus, the long, popular association of chocolate’s power to cure a broken heart!
FAT IS NOT THAT BAD!
Despite chocolate’s natural saturated fat content, numerous studies show that eating chocolate does not raise potentially harmful cholesterol levels in the blood. This is mainly because about 36% of the fat in the cocoa bean is “good fat” — either mono- or polyunsaturated fat. The largest proportion is of oleic acid, the same fatty acid abundant in healthful olive oil. And more than half the saturated fat in cocoa butter is stearic acid, which has been shown to have a neutral impact on blood cholesterol because when it is metabolized, it is converted from a saturated fat to an unsaturated fat.
USING THE RIGHT INGREDIENT.
All chocolate experts agree that chocolate and cocoa are different terms and are not interchangeable. Gary Williamson from the Nestlé Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland,
clarified in the British Journal of Nutrition: “Cocoa is the non-fat component of cocoa liquor (finely ground cocoa beans), which is used in chocolate making or as cocoa powder (commonly 12% fat) for cooking and beverages. Cocoa liquor contains approximately 55% cocoa butter, and together this [composes] cocoa solids. ‘Chocolate’ refers to the combination of cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar into a solid food product.” When using chocolate, it is important to consider using the highest cocoa solids percentage possible to get the highest concentration of flavonols.
Conventional chocolate-making can destroy naturally occurring flavonols. Mark Adriaenssens, director of R&D North America at Barry Callebaut, Pennsauken, NJ, said a special manufacturing process can preserve the maximum level of flavonols — up to 80% — in the cocoa bean without compromising taste.
Hershey scientists also concluded that the extent of polyphenol destruction is proportional to the degree of alkalinization, the method commonly called “dutching.” Ms. Potts clarified that natural-process cocoa has always been a contributor of the naturally occurring antioxidants found in chocolate, so undutched unprocessed cocoa is the best source.
Mr. Adriaenssens noted another emerging trend is the improvement of chocolate through the reduction of sugar and fat, all while keeping the great taste and texture of chocolate. No-sugar-added dark chocolates have been developed for a range of applications including coating, moulding and bakery inclusions. Chocolate is also an ideal carrier for prebiotics and probiotics, and Barry Callebaut is now developing probiotic chips that can survive typical baking temperatures and remain active.
Ms. Potts added that other ingredients of interest to the health-conscious market include high-cacao-mass chocolates, calcium-fortified milk chocolate and dark chocolate fortified with flaxseed to contribute omega-3 fatty acids.
An ever-growing body of scientific research supports the health benefits associated with consuming cocoa flavonoids. However, all chocolate professionals agree that to take full advantage of chocolate’s health benefits, you cannot ignore that chocolate is a relatively calorie-dense food and large amounts of habitual consumption can lead to weight gain and its associated risks. Also, it is important to consume dark chocolate, which is richest in antioxidants, incorporating it into a healthy balanced diet. Bakers can use this information to formulate treats that come a long way from sinful decadence to healthy indulgence.
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