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Do dark chocolates have health benefits?

Q: How does the Indian medical profession regard the benefits of dark chocolate and its anti-oxidants? Has much research has been done on this within the context of Indian lifestyle and traditional diets? Which chocolates in the market would best benefit patients of hypertension, diabetes and other ailments?

A:Chocolate contains Flavonoids, which are found in a wide array of foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine. There are more than 4,000 flavonoid compounds; flavonoids are a subgroup of a large class called polyphenols. Both these contain antioxidants. Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals, formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing or environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage ensues, leading to increases in LDL-cholesterol oxidation and plaque formation on arterial walls. When cocoa is processed into your favourite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce its naturally pungent taste. Flavonoids (polyphenols) provide this pungent taste. The more chocolate is processed (such as fermentation, alkalising, roasting), the more flavonoids are lost. To date, dark chocolate appears to retain the highest level of flavonoids. So your best bet is to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate. The fat in chocolate, from cocoa butter, is comprised of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. Saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL-cholesterol and risk for heart disease. Stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering LDL-cholesterol levels. Palmitic acid on the other hand, does affect cholesterol levels but only comprises one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. This great news does not give you the license to consume as much dark chocolate as you’d like. First, be cautious as to the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. What wreaks havoc on most chocolate products is the additional fat and calories added from other ingredients. Second, there is currently no established serving of chocolate to reap the touted cardiovascular benefits. However, what we do know is you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate once in awhile. Enjoy chocolate in moderate portions a few times per week. Don't forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and berries.

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