QUESTION: Eating dark chocolate is encouraged for its health benefits. I’ve been buying chocolate with 75% to 90% cocoa content. But the label notes a high amount of saturated fat. Is this as harmful as the saturated fat in meat?
ANSWER: The fat in chocolate is not as harmful as the fat in meat, said Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
It comes from cocoa butter and is made of equal parts of oleic acid, a heart healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, and stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease, but stearic acid does not raise cholesterol, and palmitic fat makes up only a third of the fat in chocolate. (Beef has proportionately more palmitic fat.)
The cocoa bean is also rich in flavonoids, nutrients found in many fruits and vegetables that protect plants from toxins and that, as antioxidants, repair cellular damage from free radicals. The flavonoids in cocoa and chocolate, called flavanols, may also lower blood pressure, improve circulation to the brain and heart, and make platelets less likely to clot. Unlike dark chocolate, milk chocolate has little of one crucial flavanol, epicatechin, left in it after processing.
One study that garnered a lot of attention, sponsored in part by the candy company Mars, found that older adults who consumed a drink rich in cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than others who drank a low-flavanol mix.
But don’t eat chocolate thinking it’s a health food, Lichtenstein said. The benefits in it, known as phytochemicals, are present in many plant foods, and chocolate is high in calories.
In the memory study, for example, older adults consumed the equivalent of 300 grams of dark chocolate a day, which typically would contain about a day’s worth of calories. A serving (three squares, 30 grams) of Lindt’s Excellence Dark Noir chocolate with 70% cacao contains 170 calories and 12 grams of fat, of which 7 grams are saturated fat.
“It’s unlikely that someone could consume enough dark chocolate on a regular basis to have a biological effect and still have an adequate diet,” said Lichtenstein, adding that it would be “unfortunate” if someone ate dark rather than milk chocolate in anticipation of a specific health benefit.
“I don’t think we have adequate evidence,” she said. “If somebody enjoys chocolate, they should eat a small to moderate amount of whatever chocolate they prefer.”