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Globe and Mail writer Andre Picard.
Globe and Mail writer Andre Picard.

André Picard

Chocolate is good for you? Sure, and the Easter bunny is real, too Add to ...

This time of year, the only thing more certain than a visit from the Easter bunny is the appearance of media articles touting the health benefits of chocolate.

Chocolate, we are told, is good for your heart, good for your brain and may even prevent cancer. It’s a “superfood”, like blueberries, almonds and acai.

These claims, like virtually all purported benefits of single nutrients, are grossly exaggerated, based on some dizzying leaps of logic.

The reductionist view of food as isolated compounds ignores the fact that the real benefits of food likely come from their complexity.

We actually know little about the benefits (or risks) of eating chocolate.

Almost all the research has focused on one component of the cocoa bean, molecules called cocoa flavanols.

Flavanols, when consumed in a concentrated form in a controlled setting, have been shown to lower blood pressure slightly, lower triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), and maybe limit inflammation a bit (and inflammation of blood vessels is bad for the heart).

But does any of this matter to your health? Probably not.

To further complicate matters, it’s hard to say what the level of flavanols is in any given chocolate product.

The assumption is that the darker the chocolate, the more flavanols it will contain. But that’s not necessarily true.

More important is how it is processed.

The basis of chocolate is cocoa.

Cocoa beans are heated, fermented and processed to produce cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Along the way, flavanols are often destroyed – especially if the Dutch process is used. When cocoa powder is “Dutched”, an alkalizing agent is used to soften the bitterness and modify the colour, and flavanols rarely survive.

For chocolate lovers, that’s not a bad thing because flavanols are bitter.

Research subjects don’t eat either of those. In fact, the vast majority of studies touting the benefits of chocolate do not involve chocolate at all.

Rather, subjects consume a concentrated flavanol powder that is prepared by Mars Inc. (Almost all chocolate studies are funded by the chocolate industry.)

One of the biggest “chocolate” research projects ever undertaken is the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, where researchers will compare the benefits of taking a daily supplement of 600 milligrams of cocoa flavanols to the benefits of taking a daily multivitamin, to see if either reduces the risk of developing heart disease, stroke or cancer.

If you want to get 600 milligrams of flavanol from chocolate – as opposed to a bitter pill – you would have to eat more than 600 calories worth of dark chocolate. If you want to get that much flavanol from milk chocolate, you would have to consume almost 1,000 calories. That’s the equivalent of two 100-gram chocolate bars.

To put that in perspective, a Mars bar is 52 grams, of which only a small percentage is actually chocolate.

Here are the ingredients of a Mars bar: sugar (30 grams, no less), corn syrup, milk ingredients, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, hydrogenated palm and palm kernel oil, lactose, malted milk powder (malted barley, milk ingredients, sodium bicarbonate, salt), palm oil, soy lecithin, salt, dried egg-white, artificial flavour.

This is not to pick on Mars bars but, rather, a reminder that, when we eat chocolate, we’re not just consuming flavanols and cocoa.

If you’re eating chocolate for the supposed health benefits, your best bet is probably bittersweet chocolate or, better yet, sprinkling a couple of teaspoons of cocoa powder on your oatmeal.

Neither of these is near as scrumptious as a Lindt gold bunny.

But there’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence now and then. You don’t have to believe in the magical properties of chocolate any more than you need to believe in the Easter bunny.

You can just chomp down for fun – but be sure to start with the ears.

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Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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