Truth About Chocolate & Fat

Points in this Section

  • For decades, doctors and nutritionists told us that virtually all fats are bad.
  • That story has changed drastically over the last decade, as we now know that some fats not only are helpful, but also essential to good health.
  • Chocolate has repeatedly been labeled as a "junk food" in part due to its fat content.
  • While "candy" chocolate won't contain much in the way of good fats, properly processed dark chocolate will contain oleic acid, cocoa butter and stearic acid. Oleic acid is the same fat in olive oil thought to protect the heart and blood vessels.

Chocolate and Fat: What's the Truth?

Until the last few years, scientists, nutritionists and doctors thought they understood fats - which fats are bad, which fats are good, and which fats are just plain ugly. Well, the picture that has been painted for us the last 30 years is now changing somewhat drastically.

In the 1980s, low-fat and low-cholesterol became the end-all to losing weight and being healthy. There were no-fat, low-fat, lite, low-cholesterol and no-cholesterol labels on every food ranging from crackers and salad dressings to candy and lunch meat. Essentially, the message was that fat and cholesterol - no matter the type - were bad for you. But rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related conditions continued to skyrocket.

Over the last 25 years or so, the nutrition world has changed its message more than once. For a while, we heard that there were different types of fats - monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated, for instance – and that some (saturated) were far worse than others (monounsaturated, such as olive oil).

The most recent thinking from the conventional nutrition arena is more complex than having simple categories. Monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil) definitely have benefits - protecting the blood vessels and heart, for instance, while polyunsaturated fats (such as vegetable oil) may be problematic in that they can be transformed into trans-fats. Trans-fats are vegetable oils that have turned from liquids into solids (such as margarine), and are quickly gaining a reputation for being the bad guy when it comes to fat consumption. They are used in margarine and various processed foods such as cookies, crackers and baked goods (and for frying).

Another surprising thought emerging from the nutrition world is that saturated fats - which include animal fats - are less dangerous than previously considered. Well-known examples of this include the Eskimo, whose diet is extremely high in saturated fats (e.g., blubber), but whose levels of cardiovascular disease are virtually non-existent. Most scientific research linking saturated fat intake to disease risk is relatively weak.

So what does this mean for chocolate and its fat content? Well, plenty. For decades, chocolate has repeatedly been labeled as a "junk food" or unhealthy, largely because of its fat content. Cocoa's principle fat is cocoa butter, which is comprised largely of about 2/3 saturated fat and 1/3 unsaturated fat. The unsaturated fat content of cocoa butter comes from oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olive oil that provides its health benefits. Oleic acid can increase HDL levels(the "good" cholesterol) and lower levels of LDL cholesterol (while also preventing it from being oxidized, which is when it really turns dangerous).

What about cocoa butter's saturated fats? Well, as we mentioned, it turns out that all saturated fats are not alike. Some are healthier than others - in fact, it seems somewhat silly to try and include all of them in the same category because their effects on the human body vary so widely.

One of cocoa butters saturated fats is stearic acid, which is converted by the liver to oleic acid - that's right, the good fat we just mentioned. And more research is beginning to focus on stearic acid and its effect on human health. One study involved groups of men on 3 different diets -one high in oleic acid, the second in stearic acid, and the third in palmitic acid (the prevalent fat in beef, pork and dairy products, and the fat thought to be a primary contributor to increased LDL levels and cardiovascular disease). The results surprised many people. The high-oleic acid diet reduced cholesterol levels by about 10 percent. The high stearic acid diet? It reduced cholesterol by even more-about 14 percent.

Well, it turns out that many chocolate products contain palmitic acid as well, which would lead many people to believe that chocolate will raise cholesterol and unhealthy fat levels in the blood, right? Not so fast, as a handful of studies, including one from Penn State University, suggest that consumption of milk chocolate did not raise cholesterol levels despite increasing intake of saturated fats and calories. Other follow-up studies showed that there was no increase in blood-cholesterol levels, despite the increase in saturated fat intake. And if dark chocolate had been used instead of milk chocolate, there's little doubt the results would have been even better.

The conclusion is that while the fat combination in chocolate isn't necessarily good for your heart, it's really not the health risk we've so often heard about. Cocoa butter isn't as beneficial as other fats, like olive oil or flaxseed oil, but it's certainly not as dangerous as other saturated fats (from animals) or especially trans-fats. So do yourself a favor, and instead of reaching for those fries or doughnuts, snack on a little dark chocolate.

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Lisa Getas, DC
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