Pubdate: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 Source: Oregonian, The (OR) Author: Richard L. Hill of The Oregonian staff


After Years With A Bad Rap, The Most Delectable Treat Gets Healthier Billing


Sweet, velvety, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate.

Perhaps no food in the world is more desired than the unique substance derived from the tropical cacao tree.

Chocolate will be playing its traditional romantic role as a symbol of love and passion on Valentine's Day this Sunday. The pleasure it brings, however, is often followed by feelings of guilt and worry about possible health consequences.

But recent studies are melting old notions that chocolate is an unhealthy food. Some research shows that chocolate could be the way to a person's heart in more ways than one.

"Eat chocolate, enjoy it, but just don't go overboard," said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "Consumers should read the product's nutrition label and watch the fat calories. But chocolate is a food that's not bad for you and could even confer some benefits."

Her research has shown that eating milk chocolate does not raise cholesterol levels. Participants in her studies ate foods high in different forms of saturated fat, including milk chocolate. Those who consumed saturated fat in the form of milk chocolate were the only ones who did not have an increase in their blood cholesterol.

Kris-Etherton said chocolate also appears to prevent cholesterol from being oxidized, which is an initiating event in the development of atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque that can lead to clogging of the arteries.

Research by Dr. Margo Denke, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, supports Kris-Etherton's findings. She and her colleagues found that stearic acid -- a saturated fatty acid found in cocoa butter, a large component of chocolate does not raise cholesterol levels like most saturated fats.

"Stearic acid is a unique saturated fat in the sense that if you look at the total saturated fatty acid content of cocoa butter, you definitely would overestimate its cholesterol-raising potential," Denke said.

She cautioned, however, that eating chocolate in excess -- like with most foods -- is not good. "The stearic acid finding suggests that chocolate can easily fit into a heart-healthy diet," Denke said, "with the usual stipulations that portion sizes and frequency be limited."

Moderation is required because chocolate isn't a completely guilt-free food. It contains other fats and is high in calories. Denke tells patients who are on weight-reduction diets that they can have a small portion of chocolate, such as a couple of Hershey's Kisses, as an occasional treat. "That is a satisfying way of finishing a meal that is pleasurable and doesn't make you feel as deprived as you might feel," she said. "And it always produces a smile."

Phenolic Levels Are High

Researchers at the University of California at Davis recently discovered that chocolate contains high levels of phenolics -- the same chemicals that act as anti-oxidants in laboratory tests of red wine.

Andrew L. Waterhouse, a wine chemist at UC-Davis, found that a 1.5-ounce piece of milk chocolate contains nearly the same amount of phenolics as a 5-ounce glass of red wine. His research also discovered that the phenolic compounds in chocolate produced an anti-oxidant effect equal to or greater than that of red wine.

The anti-oxidant effect is believed to be a factor in the so-called "French paradox," in which Frenchmen who eat lots of saturated fat appear to be protected from heart disease because they drink wine as part of their daily diet. Waterhouse, an associate professor of viticulture and enology, said the theory that dietary phenolics can inhibit atherosclerosis has been widely accepted as a plausible explanation for wine's effects, but it has not been proved. He said other researchers at UC-Davis continue to study chocolate's anti-oxidant effects.

"Chocolate isn't a health food," Waterhouse said, "but the main thing is that consuming a reasonable amount of chocolate isn't going to hurt you. There's always a possibility that these phenolics in the chocolate could actually help reduce heart disease, but it's going to be a little while before that's established."

In addition to research about the food's possible effects on the heart, other research in the past few years has found that many of the notions about chocolate's impact on a variety of health problems may be incorrect. Recent studies suggest that chocolate:

* Does not promote tooth decay.

* Does not cause or aggravate acne.

* Does not cause hyperactivity in children.

* Does not trigger chronic headaches.

Why Do We Crave It?

While many researchers are examining the health aspects of chocolate, others are looking into explanations as to why many people crave chocolate.

Although the average annual U.S. consumption of chocolate is nearly 12 pounds a person, scientists agree that the substance is not addictive -- there's no withdrawal related to chocolate as with nicotine, caffeine and other drugs.

Chocolate contains more than 300 known chemicals. Much of the research into the reason for the substance's pleasurable effects has focused on whether any one or a combination of those chemicals might affect desire for the food.

Caffeine is the most well-known of those chemicals, but it is present in only small quantities in chocolate. A 1.5-ounce milk-chocolate bar contains about 9 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 137 milligrams of caffeine in a 5-ounce cup of coffee.

Another weak stimulant in chocolate, theobromine -- which causes fatal chocolate poisoning in dogs -- also might provide a "lift," along with an amphetamine-related chemical called phenylethylamine. These stimulants increase the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that might affect a person's desire for different types of food.

Study Gets Continued Attention

One intriguing study about chocolate's chemicals that appeared in the journal Nature nearly three years ago continues to receive attention. Daniele Piomelli of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego reported chocolate contains substances that might mimic the effects of marijuana.

Piomelli, now an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of California at Irvine College of Medicine, said chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, which is also produced naturally in the brain and stimulates the same neural receptors that THC -- the principal active chemical in marijuana -- does. They also found that two ingredients in chocolate inhibit the natural breakdown of anandamide, which might lead to increased levels of anandamide in the brain.

Scientists in Italy reported recently, also in the journal Nature, that cocoa contains no more of the suspect chemicals than milk or oatmeal. Vincenzo Di Marzo of the Istituto per la Chimica di Molecole di Interesse Biologico in Naples said most of the marijuana-mimicking chemicals are broken down in the digestive system before they reach the brain.

Other skeptical researchers have estimated that a 130-pound person would have to ingest the equivalent of 25 pounds of chocolate in one sitting to get any marijuana-like effect.

Adam Drewnowski, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington, doesn't think there is anything addictive in chocolate.

"I don't think there's any evidence that chocolate has any so-called 'love chemicals' or pharamacological activity," said Drewnowski, who has been studying why people crave the candy. "It's what your brain manufactures in response to chocolate. You react with a certain degree of pleasure, and that is expressed at molecular levels -- the brain probably manufactures endorphins (natural opiate-like chemicals) in response to chocolate."

Drewnowski said there are "chocoholics," primarily women who identify themselves as binge eaters. He said the binge eaters crave sugar-fat mixtures, "and the perfect, quintessential sugar-fat mixture that we have in our diet is chocolate."

Sensory Properties Figure In

Mindy S. Kurzer, an associate professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says that women who crave chocolate appear to do so because of its sensory properties -- its smell, taste and feel in their mouth, she said.

"Women have much more of a relationship with food," Kurzer said, "and that is why they are studied much more than men when it comes to foods' psychological aspects. Men approach food from a much more biological perspective -- 'I'm hungry, it's time to eat, what's in the refrigerator.' The sexes are different in so many ways, it should be no surprise that our food cravings are quite different, too."

A new study suggests that culture may play a role in food cravings.

Debra A. Zellner, a psychologist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, led a research team that found about 60 percent of American women crave sweet foods over savory or salty food, while 60 percent of American men craved salty, meat-containing food. The same percentages were found in Spanish men and women.

However, when the participants were asked what food they craved, nearly 50 percent of the U.S. women said chocolate along with 20 percent of American men. But only about 25 percent of both Spanish men and women indicated a craving for chocolate.

"So it seems that the craving for sweet foods in women might be physiological, but which sweet foods they crave is determined by cultural learning," Zellner said.

Scientific research about chocolate -- whether it focuses on cravings or health effects -- is replacing many of the myths and revising the way we view the food, said Susan S. Smith, spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association.

"But more research is needed and the jury is still out about whether chocolate affects the body in a good way," Smith said. "We're not going to claim there are any health benefits yet. But as long as it's consumed in moderation -- and that's the key -- we think it can fit into anybody's healthy diet and lifestyle."

You can reach Richard L. Hill at 503-221-8238 or by e-mail at


The Sweet Facts

- -Source-- Cocoa beans from tropical cacao trees.

History: The ancient Olmec people of southern Mexico were the first to develop processed chocolate about 3,000 years ago. The later Maya and Aztec civilizations made food and drink from the cocoa beans, and the beans also were a form of currency.

Although Christopher Columbus knew about it, the first documented evidence of chocolate's appearance in Europe was when the Maya presented it to Prince Philip of Spain in 1544. It eventually spread throughout Europe, with popular English chocolate houses opening in the late 17th century.

U.S. per capita consumption: 11.7 pounds annually.

U.S. consumption rank: 8th. The Swiss lead with an average of 20.7 pounds, followed by Austrians at 19.6 pounds.

Total U.S. consumption: 3.2 billion pounds annually.

Ingredients: Chocolate manufacturers use 40 percent of the world's almonds, 20 percent of the world's peanuts and 8 percent of the world's sugar. They also use 3.5 million pounds of whole milk each day.

Valentine's Day: Americans will spend an estimated $800 million on 36 million boxes of chocolate.

Givers: Half of American women are likely to give chocolate to a man on Valentine's Day.

Dream giver: Women would most like to receive a box of chocolates from Michael Jordan (45.5 percent) or Tiger Woods (40.6 percent).

- ---Source- Chocolate Manufacturers Association, National Confectioners Association