The Exploratorium

...Chocolate      Page Seven

Health Help or Risk?
Chocolate has been said to cause acne and tooth decay, and has a reputation for being a fattening, nutritionless food. On the other hand, chocolate is also known for being everything from an anti-depressant to an aphrodisiac. While there's still much we don't know about chocolate, recent research is helping us better understand how chocolate consumption affects our health.

The good news is that most of the bad effects of eating chocolate are either overstated or entirely false. Eating chocolate neither causes nor aggravates acne. Two studies -- one by the Pennsylvania School of Medicine and another by the U.S. Naval Academy -- showed that eating chocolate (or not eating it) did not produce any significant changes in the acne conditions of the study's participants. These results are further backed by research which shows that acne is not primarily linked to diet.

Chocolate also has not been proven to cause cavities or tooth decay. In fact, there are indications that the cocoa butter in the chocolate coats the teeth and may help protect them by preventing plaque from forming. The sugar in chocolate does contribute to cavities, but no more than the sugar in any other food.

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Andrew Waterhouse explains what "phenolics" are.
(Requires RealAudio.)

Obviously, eating too much of any food may cause health problems. The cocoa butter in chocolate does contain saturated fat, which can increase blood cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol can contribute to heart disease. However, recent research at the University of California, Davis, has found that chocolate carries high levels of chemicals known as phenolics, some of which may help lower the risk of heart disease. Plants such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and others contain high levels of phenolics.

Andrew Waterhouse, the lead researcher from U.C. Davis, is a wine chemist. For several years he has been studying the possible health benefits of antioxidant phenolics found in red wine. Waterhouse told us that phenolic compounds are found in all plant products, and that the plants "probably make them as protective agents and for improving their success at reproduction." The bitter, astringent taste that these plants have is an indication of the phenolics found within.

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Andrew Waterhouse discusses how phenolics may reduce the risk of heart disease.

So how might phenolics prevent heart disease? Apparently, phenolics prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries. Said Waterhouse: "It's now believed that atherosclerosis, or the formation of plaque in the arteries, is caused by oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoproteins) -- that's one of the cholesterol particles. At first, this leads to subtle damage, and then eventually to the formation of advanced plaque." The buildup of plaque can lead to clogging of the arteries, a major cause of heart attacks.

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Andrew Waterhouse explains why more research is needed to understand the potential health benefits of phenolics.

While phenolics have chemically been proven to reduce oxidation, Waterhouse cautioned that: "It's not known if the phenolic compounds, like the flavenoids that are present in chocolate, can reduce disease. It's well known that these substances are antioxidants in a chemical sense. . .but we don't have strong, large-scale, controlled human studies." More research still needs to be done, but certainly the initial research is encouraging.


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