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Chocolate: It's just not that good for you Add to ...

If an excuse is needed to consume chocolate, it comes on Valentine's Day.

Heart-shaped boxes full of sweet treats lurk in just about every drug and department store, testing the wills of even the most ardent detractors of the lovers' holiday.

But this year, some of that temptation is moving over to the health food aisle.

A new crop of companies are trying to sell consumers on the positive aspects of dark chocolate as part of a growing campaign to rebrand it as a health food.

It marks a new era in chocolate marketing prompted by research that has shown dark chocolate contains antioxidants, which can help protect cells and potentially prevent disease. The findings are similar to studies that have pointed to the health benefits of red wine.

After the link between dark chocolate and antioxidants was made several years ago, well-known confectionery companies such as Hershey, Mars and Dove began launching new dark chocolate products as a way to appeal to consumers.

Now, new companies are going one step further by promoting their dark chocolate products not just as treats with a nutritional benefit, but as health foods.

Some experts worry that the new tactic risks crossing the line of responsible marketing.

The new dark chocolate treats being pushed by companies such as Ecco Bella and Smart Confections often contain added vitamins, nutrients and probiotics. Labels on various products claim the chocolate can help lower cholesterol, improve bone strength or support heart health, among a range of other health benefits.

The companies often call them "functional foods," a term used for foods that fight disease. But are these claims as good as they appear?

Jeffrey Blumberg, a nutrition science and policy professor at Tufts University who was a pioneer of research into the health benefits of chocolate, said he is worried consumers are being misled.

"I have some concerns about trying to turn confectionery products into health foods," Prof. Blumberg said. "I just worry that some companies and some people get carried away with all these [claims of]health benefits of eating lots of chocolate."

Research has shown that flavonoids, antioxidants found in cocoa beans, may help lower blood pressure and "bad" LDL cholesterol, as well as improve blood vessel function and provide other cardiovascular benefits.

But the findings about dark chocolate aren't conclusive enough to warrant a dietary recommendation, and encouraging people to eat more chocolate based on these findings could have negative consequences, according to Bruce Holub, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph.

"I think it's a very tricky and sometimes potentially dangerous minefield," Prof. Holub said.

Even if a chocolate bar's label says it contains nutrients, the levels may be too low to have a positive effect on health, Prof. Holub said.

"It's playing on the ignorance of the public for the most part," Prof. Holub said.

Chocolate+Plus, a line of chocolate bars sold by Smart Confections that was launched in Canada last year and sold exclusively by Shoppers Drug Mart and Pharmaprix, is marketed as a natural health product infused with flavonoids, calcium, probiotics and multivitamins.

It is "scientifically enhanced to deliver specific health benefits," said Morne Van Wyk, Shoppers Drug Mart's category strategy vice-president, in a release when the product was introduced.

There are eight kinds of bars containing different combinations of vitamins and nutrients that the company claims offer various health benefits. The label of the "Strong Bones" chocolate bar says it contains vitamin D3 and calcium for the maintenance of strong, healthy bones. Another claims it is loaded with probiotics to help digestion and immunity. Another, called "Sweet Dreams," contains the herbal remedy valerian and magnesium oxide to "encourage restful sleep."

Directions on the bars say to eat "one bar daily as part of a healthy lifestyle," adding that a balanced diet and exercise are important. The "Sweet Dreams" bar advises people to eat one when needed. The 50-gram bars contain 21 grams of fat and 294 calories, on average.

Although the company makes health claims about its chocolate bars, it hasn't yet received Health Canada approval.

Health Canada reviews applications from companies that want to sell natural health products, to ensure they are safe, effective and of high quality.

Tim Donovan, CEO of Smart Confections, said in an e-mail that the applications have been submitted to Health Canada and the company is awaiting approval.

Another line of dark chocolate products being touted in Canada for its health benefits is Xocai, which is sold by a variety of distributors. One 12-gram chocolate nugget contains 70 calories and five grams of fat. Ben Stellino, a Toronto distributor of the products, says they offer people who love chocolate a way to enjoy it in a healthier way.

"Everybody who loves chocolate can eat this safely and we've taken the guilt away from it," she said.

Health Canada spokesman Philippe Laroche said in an e-mail that no Xocai products have been licensed for sale in Canada.

The new dark chocolate products are usually pricier than traditional chocolate bars. For instance, 50-gram Chocolate+Plus bars sell for around $2.50, compared with $1 to $1.50 for other chocolate bars.

The growing hype around dark chocolate is similar to the excitement about possible health benefits of red wine in recent years.

Both are rich in flavonoids. Numerous fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains also contain vast amounts of flavonoids.

The difference is that indulging too frequently in red wine or dark chocolate can negate any health benefits that might be derived from their ingredients, Prof. Blumberg said.

Although dark chocolate contains flavonoids that may help lower bad cholesterol, it's also loaded with fat and sugar. Treating it as anything more than an occasional indulgence, even if it's loaded with vitamins and high amounts of flavonoids, could aggravate or create health problems, Prof. Blumberg said.

"I think, ultimately, consumers just have to understand it's the old axiom: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

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