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Is chocolate healthy? Alas, the answer is not sweet. Here's why

Sure, you probably know that "white chocolate" (which does not contain any chocolate at all) and milk chocolate (which is loaded with sugar and fat) are not healthy choices. But while dark chocolate is a better choice, it's not a healthy one. I'm sorry, trick-or-treaters.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm a chocoholic myself, so I'm not happy about this either. While I've never deluded myself into thinking of chocolate as a health food, like antioxidant-rich kale, I believed – thanks to many published studies – that even one square of dark chocolate definitely had some health benefits.

When I did an internet search, I found plenty of articles saying just that, including Healthline's "7 Proven Chocolate Benefits" and Cleveland Clinic's "Heart Healthy Chocolate Benefits." Articles like these (and many more) report that chocolate may lower the risk of certain cancers, lower blood pressure and reduce the risks of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

I even read that dark chocolate lowered the risk of depression and that it counted – along with nuts, avocados and blueberries – as a "superfood."

Mucking up things, though, are other studies that suggest chocolate may increase our risk for other cancers, and we'd be foolish not to know that eating too much can lead to obesity (and the worrisome health conditions that follow in its wake).

As a journalist, I know better than to believe everything I read, especially if it's melting in my mouth. So I did a little investigating to get to the bottom of the question: Is chocolate healthy?

The top Google result for that question was a report ("Can chocolate be good for my health?") On the Mayo Clinic website. To help me fact-check it, I am named Marion Nestle, the much respected professor of food and nutrition studies at New York University who has extensively studied the chocolate industry (most recently in her book "Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew The Science of What We Eat). "

I read Nestle's (which is no relation to the candy maker) article's lead paragraph, which states, in part, "chocolate's reputation is on the rise, as a growing number of studies suggest it may be a heart-healthy choice."

She stopped me right there to note that it's not chocolate but flavanols in chocolate that may have potential benefits. Flavanols are abundant in cocoa beans, which yield cocoa powder, which is then used to make chocolate, she said.

To be fair, despite its enticing headline, the Mayo article does in fact focus on the benefits of flavanols, not chocolate, notably their "antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implied in heart disease." [and] Also help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. "But will readers understand that the amount of flavanols in a chocolate bar is not nearly enough to affect their health? No, Nestle said with obvious exasperation:" You'd have to eat an awful lots of chocolate to make a difference. "

Nestle told me that if I eat more chocolate to intake my flavanol, I'm consuming a lot more calories and fat as well – which will be bad for my health. That's because flavanol-rich cocoa has a bitter taste, so candy manufacturers add lots of fats and sugars to create commercial – delicious-tasting – chocolate.

A recent study reported that "higher levels of chocolate consumption may be associated with a one-third reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease." That sounds like great news, but the study authors point out that those benefits would require "excessive consumption," with the probable side effect of "weight gain, a risk factor for hypertension, diabetes, and dyslipidaemia," which increases the chance of clogged arteries and heart attacks, strokes, or other circulatory concerns, especially in smokers. Not so great.

Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, also said "data is not supported by use [chocolate] as a health food. "Why do so many think it is? It sounds great so I think people like repeating it," she said.

Lichtenstein is critical of many studies, which she reminds me to come out right before Valentine's Day – our National Chocolate Day. They are "lacking plausibility" and are mostly "observational," she said, which means they can show that two variables are related to each other but cannot prove cause and effect.

As an example, Lichtenstein pointed to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed "a very strong correlation between per capita chocolate intake and the number of Nobel prizes awarded in any country. Does that mean the more chocolate you eat, the are you more likely to win a Nobel Prize? "

I certainly hoped so, but Lichtenstein quashed my dream: "Obviously not." Correlation is not a cause, she said, a fallacy many people fail to understand. Eating more chocolate will not make you smarter or boost your chances of winning a Nobel Prize. Sorry.

Further dashing my hopes, Lichtenstein said there was some research "suggesting biological effects, but those studies were done at high concentrations" of flavanols. To make her point, she told me about a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience that concluded people who consumed a high dose of cocoa flavanols performed much better on a memory test than those on a low-flavanol mixture. Wow, I thought. But then she added that a person would have to eat about "seven average-sized bars" daily to consume enough flavanol for this possible benefit.

That study, it turned out, had other issues, notably that it had partial funding from Mars, the chocolate company.

Marion Nestle said this is not an isolated incident. Chocolate makers have long funded studies to determine the health benefits of chocolate. A 2018 Vox report on more than 100 March-funded studies found overwhelmingly glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate – promoting everything from chocolate to heart health to cocoa's ability to fight disease.

"I'm not impressed by the research that shows this [when] it's industry funded, "Nestle said." It's very hard to take seriously. "So take these studies with a grain of salt – but maybe not another square of chocolate.

To wrap up my "investigation," I spoke to Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic and author of "Can chocolate be good for my health?"

Is it, I asked? "I think it could possibly be," she said. "It's like so many other foods, it probably depends on how it is consumed, how much it is consumed …" From there, she quickly moved on to the important difference between cocoa beans and chocolate, pointing out as Nestle had previously stated that it's the flavanol-rich cocoa beans that "are potentially health promoting" – not chocolate. (A Mayo Clinic representative told me that their "content is not affected in any way by beneficiaries and donations to the Mayo Clinic.")

There's that problem again: With every delectable mouthfeel, cocoa beans in chocolate offer tiny additional doses of flavanols – which are good for you – but far more extra fat, sugar and calories – which are bad. It's not a healthy trade-off.

So what's a chocoholic to do? First, stop thinking of chocolate as "healthy." Nestle said she eats dark chocolate with nuts, but she's clear it's a treat.

"It's a candy, and candy has a place in American diets," she said. "That place is moderation."

Zeratsky urged people to look for chocolate that is 65% or higher made from cocoa, "where we might see some health benefits." That means only dark chocolate since milk chocolate doesn't have that much cocoa, which is how we measure "dark."

She also recommended that we keep our chocolate intake at the American Heart Association's limit for discretionary calories – about 100 calories a day, or one square of dark chocolate. That yields about 140 milligrams of flavanols, below the level where you'll likely get any health benefits. Enjoy it, like I do, but know it's a treat.

OK, now you can unfriend me now.

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A closer look at this confectionery

Here's your basic chocolate analysis.

All chocolate bars, and syrups, are made from cocoa bean, also called cacao, which is the dried and fermented seed of Theobroma cacao, which consists of cocoa solids and butter. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which if you've ever bitten into one, you know it's bitter. Very bitter.

When it comes to labeling chocolate, it's done with a percentage such as "45% cocoa," or "70% cocoa."

In a 70% bar, which is a dark chocolate, more than two-thirds of the contents are derived from beans, the nibs to be precise, with the remainder consisting of sugar, cocoa butter or vegetable oil. That makes dark chocolates taste less sweet to our palates than milk chocolates, but also makes them less unhealthy (which is not the same as healthy).

By contrast, milk chocolate has a smaller percentage of cocoa beans than dark – and a higher percentage of cocoa butter and sugar – along with powdered or condensed milk. White chocolate usually contains no cocoa powder – but lots of butter / oils, sugar and milk – which is why many people rightly claim that white "chocolate" is an oxymoron.

It's those cocoa beans in chocolate that provide tiny doses of flavanols, which have some health benefits. So how much chocolate do we need to consume to get that benefit?

There is no official US recommended daily amount of flavanols, but one of the largest trials looking at their benefits used 750 mg a day with study participants. For the rest of us to get that same amount, we need to consume 4 3/4 ounces of dark chocolate, or 750 calories a day, and 2 1/2 pounds of milk chocolate, or 5,850 calories daily. That's a mouthful.

This article was written by Steven Petrow, a Washington Post contributing columnist.

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