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September 19, 2004
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Valentine’s Chocolate Boxes

For the chocolate industry, Valentine’s Day is one of the most wonderful times of the year, as Cupid’s arrow strikes romantics squarely in the sweet tooth. But are all those calories empty ones? New nutrition research may help take the guilt out of chocoholics’ guilty pleasure.

Is Chocolate the Latest Rage in Health Food?

No. And eating lots of it will still make you fat. But researchers from the University of CaliforniaDavis have found that chocolate contains large amounts of the natural chemicals called phenolics, some of which are thought to help lower the risk of coronary heart disease.

Chocolate pastries

Phenolics prevent fatlike substances in the bloodstream from "oxidizing." When oxidation occurs, substances in the blood known as low-density lipoproteins (aka "bad" cholesterol) get damaged and lead to a fatty buildup that clogs the arteries. The clogging of human arteries is a major cause of often fatal heart attacks.

"A lot of people assume that chocolate is a sort of evil food," says Carl Keen, one of the UCDavis researchers that plan to present the results of their latest work at a major science convention next week. "But in reality what we and others have found is that it contains many ingredients and compounds that are good for your health."

V-Day Facts

  • Valentine’s Day ranks fourth in confectionary sales among holidays; Halloween is first, followed by Easter and Christmas.

  • Americans spend $1.011 billion each Valentine’s Day on candy, including more than 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.

  • American men would rather receive chocolate than flowers on Valentine’s Day.

  • 50% of women will likely give a gift of chocolate to a man for Valentine’s Day.

  • 64% of men do not make plans in advance for a romantic Valentine’s Day.

If true, this would be welcome news, because while the U.S. has ostensibly become a health-obsessed nation, you wouldn’t know it from chocolate consumption, which has risen consistently over the past several years to 3.3 billion pounds eaten in 1998 (that weighs in at 12.2 pounds per person).

A Word of Caution

But just because chocolate might provide beneficial effects in a certain area doesn’t mean it has magically been wiped off the list of things to enjoy only in moderation.

"I think it’s clear that chocolate should be an occasional treat and not part of a healthy everyday diet," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And I think it’s unfortunate that the chocolate industry is trying to sway the public in saying that chocolate is good for you. It’s particularly disturbing when you consider that one out of two Americans is overweight and that Americans already don’t eat a terrific diet."

In particular, she is referring to Mars, Inc., which has created an entire website and a new logo to promote the alleged healthy effects of chocolate. The site cites research which says the saturated fat stearic acid (which is found in chocolate) has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol. But this was recently called into question in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The chocolate research mirrors studies which in recent years have shown unexpected health benefits from the consumption of red wine, which stemmed from the so-called "French Paradox"that certain people in France had high fat diets yet inexplicably low rates of heart disease. "The initial studies suggest there is indeed a reduction in cardiovascular disease in individuals who consume chocolate," says Keen. "However, it would be premature to suggest that the effect is as strong as what we see in the French Wine Paradox." We also do not yet know how much chocolate needs to be consumed to get a significant amount of phenolics into the bloodstream.

Until then, we can only be assured that giving chocolates to your sweetie on Valentine’s Day is good for the heart in at least one way.

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