The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods,” and it does seem that the fruit of the tree and its delicious derivatives are indeed fit for the deities. Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical and divine attributes, appropriate for service in even the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. By the 17th century, chocolate in drinking form was a fashionable quaff for the European elite, who believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. It’s been said that Casanova was especially enamored by its charms.
And the love affair has yet to wane. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than $11 billion industry in the United States alone, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the confectionery every month.
But chocolate is a funny thing. In recent years it has become the darling of nutritionists as health benefit after health benefit has been revealed — most notably that it lowers the risk of stroke and heart attacks. And a new study in Denmark shows that eating a small amount of chocolate every week or two lowers the risk of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. Yet, it’s long been the character actor bad guy in any number of scenarios, including acne, weight gain and high cholesterol.
But is chocolate’s bad reputation warranted? Should we embrace it as a miracle food, or shun it as a deleterious delight? Here's the dope on chocolate's most notorious myths.
1. Chocolate raises bad cholesterol
If you’ve given up chocolate in the name of lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, you may have been unwittingly sacrificing the sweet treat for nothing. Quelle tragique! While it’s true that chocolate contains cocoa butter, which is high in saturated fat, much of the fat comes from stearic acid, which doesn’t act like saturated fat. Studies have shown that chocolate does not raise bad cholesterol, and in fact for some people, chocolate can lower cholesterol levels.
2. Chocolate is high in caffeine
Contrary to popular belief, chocolate is not loaded with the jitter-inducing compound known as caffeine. A Hershey’s chocolate bar contains 9 milligrams of caffeine and a Hershey’s Special Dark bar contains 31 milligrams, as compared to the 320 milligrams found in a Starbuck’s grande brewed coffee. Darker varieties are higher in caffeine, it’s true, but not as high as many people think.
3. The sugar in chocolate causes hyperactivity
Excessive sugar causes kids to jump off the walls, bounce off the ceiling, and generally mimic a rogue helicopter, right? So we thought. But more than a dozen good-quality studies have failed to find any link between sugar in children's diets and hyperactive behavior. Two theories: It’s the environment that creates the excitability (birthday parties, holidays, etc) and/or that the connection is simply in the minds of the parents expecting hyper behavior following sugar-fueled revelries.
4. People with diabetes have to give up chocolate
Chocolate does not need to be completely avoided by people with diabetes. In fact, many are often surprised to learn that chocolate has a low glycemic index. Recent studies suggest that dark chocolate may actually improve insulin sensitivity in people with normal and high blood pressure and improve endothelial dysfunction in people with diabetes. Of course, always check with your doctor before ripping open the Ritter wrapper.
5. Chocolate causes tooth decay and cavities
A study investigating the development of plaque from chocolate found that chocolate has less of an effect on dental plaque than pure table sugar. Of course, most of us aren’t snacking on straight sugar, but another study backed it up when it showed no association between eating chocolate and getting cavities. In fact, a study from Osaka University in Japan found that parts of the cocoa bean, the main ingredient of chocolate, thwart mouth bacteria and tooth decay. Fighting cavities never tasted so good.
6. Chocolate makes you gain weight
Of course it does. Well, not necessarily. Obviously, monumental hot fudge sundaes aren’t going to do your waistline any favors, but a large study funded by the National Institutes of Health found this: Consuming a small amount of chocolate each of five days during a week was linked to a lower BMI, even if the person ate more calories overall and didn't exercise more than other participants. Hello, chocolate diet.
7. Eating sugar and chocolate can add to stress
A study found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed.
8. Chocolate lacks nutritional value
If you’ve seen any of the deluge of scientific studies touting the health benefits of chocolate, you know this is not true. But just how nutritious is chocolate? It has bona fide superfood status. A typical dark chocolate bar contains as much antioxidant capacity as 2 3/4 cups of green tea, 1 glass of red wine, or 2/3 cup of blueberries. In addition, chocolate also contains minerals and dietary fiber.
9. Chocolate must contain at least 70 percent cacao to be good for you
The general recommendation is to consume dark chocolate with a minimum of 70 percent cacao to reap the health benefits; in general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the antioxidant content. However, in one 18-week study, participants who ate a small amount of 50 percent cacao chocolate experienced a significant reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. As well, another study showed short-term improvements in blood flow and blood pressure after consumption of a 60 percent cacao dark chocolate.
10. Chocolate is an aphrodisiac
The Aztecs may have been the first to believe in the connection between chocolate and amorous feelings — Montezuma is said to have consumed large amounts to enhance his romantic forays, and Casanova imbibed pre-seduction as well. But numerous studies have yet to find conclusive evidence that chocolate physically gets the fires burning. That said, chocolate is sensual to eat, lowers stress, and may have aphrodisiac qualities that are psychological in origin.
11. Chocolate causes acne
One of the most common chocolate myths is that chocolate causes acne. Although any teen will tell you that chocolate causes acne, studies going as far back as the 1960s have failed to show any relationship between chocolate consumption and acne. An extensive review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “diet plays no role in acne treatment in most patients … even large amounts of chocolate have not clinically exacerbated acne.”
The moral of the story is: Eat chocolate! Alas, eat it in moderation. An average 3-ounce bar of milk chocolate has 420 calories and 26 grams of fat, almost as much as a Big Mac — and that's a fact.