Chocoholics may feel a certain pang of sadness with what Harvard University experts have to say about their favorite snack: it is far from being considered a health food.

Chocolate has gained more attraction toward food lovers because of several claims saying that it helps reduce cardiovascular diseases and enhance memory. However, researchers said that these statements may be a little too overboard at the moment.

The health benefits of chocolate are being doubted despite positive results of observational researches because of the lack of an established causal relationship.

The beneficial health effects of chocolate are all linked to one component: flavanols. Flavanols are naturally-occurring compounds in the cocoa bean. Numerous small clinical studies have shown that high amounts of these substances relax blood vessels and improve blood circulation in the brain. However, further data is required to confirm that these compounds actually prevent stroke and heart attack.

"Flavanols are one of the most promising and exciting nutritional interventions available for helping to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and a large-scale randomized trial is the next logical step in testing their effectiveness," said Dr. JoAnn Manson, head of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard.

The levels of flavanols in chocolate items are based on different factors such as the genetic makeup of cocoa, the components of soil where the plant grew and the manner in which the cocoa beans were processed. Majority of food companies do not indicate the amount of flavanols their chocolate products contain.

Different types of chocolate contain varying levels of flavanols. Cocoa solids are rich in flavanols while cocoa fat do not contain the compounds at all.

To get 750 mg of flavanols in dark chocolate, which is mostly made of nonfat cocoa solids, one must consume about 700 calories in the process.

Milk chocolate, containing more cocoa fat and less flavanols, requires one to get 750 mg of the healthy content by consuming over 1,000 calories, which is far higher than the recommended intake of sugar and saturated fat.

Lastly, white chocolate cannot technically be considered chocolate as it only has cocoa fat, sugar, milk solids and flavorings. No flavanols can be found in this white treat at all.

With or without flavanols, chocolate is still said to be a good substitute for other baked products and sticky or hard candies. As per recommendation, 1.5 ounces of solid chocolate a few times a week would not hurt.

Manson is working with Dr. Howard Sesso in a study that involves 18,000 men and women who will be randomly asked to either take a 750 mg cocoa flavanol capsule daily or a placebo. The team will monitor the subjects for four years and compare the incidence of strokes, heart attacks and deaths in each group.

Photo: Lee McCoy | Flickr

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