DEAR DR. BLONZ: I grew up with warnings about saturated fat, but in recent years, there have been positive health reports about chocolate -- which contains saturated fat. Am I missing something, or has there been a change in thinking? Does this open the door for chocolate? -- C.L., Los Angeles
DEAR C.L.: There's little doubt that chocolate would appear near the top of any list of people's favorite foods. Its taste, which has been cherished by many cultures throughout history, has a definite ability to please the palate. Americans lead the world in the consumption of chocolate.
A little background: Chocolate comes from the seedpods of the cacao, a tropical evergreen tree. The pods are harvested, and the inner white beans, called cocoa beans, are removed. These beans get roasted and ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor, which is about 50 percent fat by weight. The fat in the liquor is referred to as cocoa butter.
Stearic acid, a saturated fat, is the main fat in cocoa butter (34 percent). The other main fats are oleic acid, which is the monounsaturate found in olive oils (30 percent), and palmitic acid (20 percent), which is another saturated fat.
Chocolate liquor serves as the base ingredient in the manufacture of all forms of chocolate. Solid chocolates are made by combining the liquor with additional cocoa butter and varying amounts of sugar. Milk is added if the product is to be a milk chocolate. Cocoa powder is made by extracting most of the cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor paste.
Getting back to your question: A systematic review in the January 2006 issue of Nutrition and Metabolism reported that stearic acid has a neutral effect on the risk of cardiovascular disease, and also that the phytochemical substances in cocoa beans have been reported to be protective.
So the door is definitely open, as you say. But what about other substances in chocolate?
There is caffeine in it, but not a significant amount. A 1.5-ounce bar of milk chocolate, for example, contains only about 9 milligrams of caffeine: the amount you would find in 1 tablespoon of coffee or less than 3 ounces of cola. A cup of hot cocoa has even less caffeine than that: about 5 milligrams. These amounts are too small to cause stimulation in most people.
Chocolate has traditionally been one of the first foods removed from the diet of acne-prone individuals, but controlled studies have shown that chocolate does not contribute to the outbreak of acne. And while it's possible for one to be allergic to any food, allergies to chocolate are rare.
Although chocolate contains sugar, studies have consistently shown that milk chocolate does not contribute to tooth decay. It's believed that the protein and minerals in chocolate help protect tooth enamel, and that the fat content prevents the confection from sticking to teeth. In addition, while a 1.5-ounce bar of milk chocolate contains 235 calories, it also supplies close to 10 percent of the daily value for riboflavin, phosphorous, calcium, manganese, zinc and copper.
All this should not be taken as a license to overindulge. After all, chocolate is high in fat. Whether it's milk chocolate or a higher-quality bittersweet, the fat content ranges between 50 and 75 percent of its calories.
The main idea here is that chocolate is not a staple food; it's a treat.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.