CINCINNATI—There is a sound kids love to hear in the summer and one that may bring back fond memories for adults—the musical tune ice cream trucks play as they roll through the neighborhood. From ice cream covered in chocolate to soft serve with chocolate candies, a favorite treat for many contains a common ingredient—chocolate.
"People often think chocolate should be restricted from their diets because it’s ‘bad’ for them,” says Bonnie Brehm, PhD, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. "Chocolate actually has flavonoids, which are substances that act as antioxidants, protecting the body from ‘free radicals,’ or oxidized compounds that are associated with the development of heart disease.”
Although chocolate is relatively high in calories and fat (about 150 calories and 8.5 grams of fat per ounce) it contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat (also found in olive oil), according to Brehm. In addition, it has stearic and palmitic acids (forms of saturated fat). Saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL, or bad, cholesterol and risk for heart disease, however, research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol neither raising or lowering LDL cholesterol levels. Palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels but only comprises one-third of the fat calories in chocolate.
"Although chocolate has antioxidants, that doesn’t mean you can eat as much of it as you want. You can include chocolate in your diet but like all foods, it should be done in moderation,” says Brehm.
Here are some helpful things to know about chocolate:
- What it is: Chocolate is made from cocoa beans derived from cacao trees. Cocoa beans are pungent because of the flavonoids so the more it is processed (such as fermentation, alkalizing and roasting), the more flavonoids are lost.
- The most healthful kind: Flavonoids act as antioxidants which are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals from environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. They are also thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet effects. Dark chocolate, which is less processed than lighter chocolates, retains the highest level of flavonoids.
- People can eat chocolate: Brehm, who researches nutrition and obesity, suggests that it’s OK to include chocolate in your diet but moderation is the key. "We should include a variety of flavonoid-rich foods in our diets. These include apples, purple grapes, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, red wine, green and black tea, and chocolate. A heart-healthy diet combined with an active lifestyle can include chocolate in small amounts,” she says.
Brehm cautions people to choose their chocolate treats wisely.
"Chocolate that contains other ingredients, such as caramel, marshmallow and nuts, adds fat and calories. Try strawberries dipped in chocolate, brownies with dried fruit or a piece of dark chocolate. You don’t need to feel guilty about enjoying a small serving of chocolate once in awhile,” Brehm advises.
Brehm is one of nearly 140 UC experts answering health-related questions from consumers on NetWellness, a collaborative health-information Web site staffed by Ohio physicians, nurses and allied health professionals. For more information, visit www.netwellness.org.