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Diet and Nutrition

Chocolate: A Forbidden Food…Maybe Not!

Who doesn't like the sweet taste and smooth texture of chocolate? But many of us feel guilty when we indulge in chocolate as a topping, a candy, or a beverage. Is it really a "forbidden" food?

What is the history of chocolate?

The fruit of the cacao tree is a football-shaped pod that contains about 25-75 cocoa beans. Ancient civilizations in Mexico and Central America regarded chocolate, made from the cocoa beans, as magical. It was used as a beverage, as a medicine for gastrointestinal problems, as a treatment for fatigue, and as an offering in religious events. In the 1500s, after cocoa beans were brought to Spain from Mexico, chocolate became popular across Europe, where it was viewed as a healthy food. "Hot chocolate", a sweetened version of the beverage, became a preferred drink for royal families. Because of the high prices of imported cocoa beans and sugar, chocolate was not readily available in the United States until the mid-1800s. Chocolate's popularity with Americans heightened during World War I, when U.S. chocolate manufacturers shipped it to our soldiers throughout Europe.

Can chocolate be a "heart-healthy" food?

Chocolate today is processed and contains varying amounts of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk. Although chocolate is relatively high in calories and fat (about 150 calories and 8.5 grams of fat per ounce), it contains monounsaturated fat and a type of saturated fat that are not associated with increasing blood cholesterol levels. In fact, research studies have shown that chocolate does not raise and may even improve blood cholesterol levels.

Chocolate contains a variety of minerals that are needed for cardiovascular health, such as calcium, magnesium, copper, and potassium. It also contains flavonoids, which are substances that act as antioxidants, protecting the body from "free radicals" (oxidized compounds that are associated with the development of heart disease). Dark chocolate contains greater amounts of minerals and flavonoids than lighter chocolates. Recent studies are investigating other positive effects of chocolate, such as anti-inflammatory, anti-platelet, and vasodilatory effects.

So should we include chocolate in our diet?

Based on current scientific evidence, we should include a variety of flavonoid-rich foods in our diets, such as apples, purple grapes, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, red wine, green and black tea, and chocolate. But remember that all foods should be eaten in moderation. So a heart-healthy diet combined with an active lifestyle can include chocolate ... in small amounts. Savor those delicious treats, such as strawberries dipped in chocolate or chocolate brownies with added nuts and dried cranberries, occasionally and leave the guilt behind!

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Last Reviewed: May 02, 2006

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati