Chew on this: 02/10

Why you shouldn’t judge a chocolate bar by its label

By Jayne Powers

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, we’re in high sweet mode. My all-around champion favorite knocks me back to my childhood – chocolate.

If you follow nutrition headlines, you no doubt have read that chocolate is one of those star superfoods that will keep your heart healthy.

Chocolate is rich in antioxidant compounds known as flavanols. These flavanols are also found in grapes, apples and teas.

What makes chocolate and other superfoods so special is that they are thought to alter the physiological processes of aging.

In other words, they slow down aging because the antioxidants they contain act to stop the chain reaction that increases the number of free radicals in your system. Free radicals age us because they damage healthy cells. This damage happens to everyone and is a natural process of aging.

Some studies also show cocoa flavanols may improve memory, reduce the likelihood of blood clots and inflammation, promote normal blood pressure and relax blood vessels – all of which prevent heart disease. Other studies, however, are less conclusive, which may be a limiting factor for choosing chocolate as a daily must-have.

Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has not approved any cardiovascular health benefits for U.S. chocolate products, the European Food Safety Authority approved a health claim in 2012 that 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols can “help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.”

Despite the health claim, an effective dose of flavanols from cocoa products has yet to be established for any specific purpose, although doses ranging from 50 mg to 200 mg per day have shown positive results in some studies. The European health claim arose from a study in which participants consumed 200 milligrams of flavanols every day, specifically CocoaVia powder.

When I buy chocolate, I do what a lot of people do when they buy wine – look at the label. I favor a well-designed label printed on high-quality paper that shows a high concentration of “% cacao.”

I’d always thought a higher “% cocoa” number translates to higher flavanol content.

But that is not necessarily true. ConsumerLab.com, which independently tests and reviews supplements and minerals, tested the flavanol content of popular cocoa powders and chocolate bars, using a validated method for testing flavanol content. Its review of chocolate products also offered insight into labeling gimmicks.

The most surprising revelation, at least to me, was that you can’t trust “% cocoa” to indicate the flavanol content of a chocolate bar. The “% cocoa” is merely the sum of cocoa liquor, cocoa powder and cocoa butter relative to other ingredients, such as sugar or milk, in the formula.

Without knowing the true ratio of cocoa butter to cocoa powder, you won’t know how much flavanol is in the chocolate. Cocoa butter, sugar and milk do not contain flavanols. For example, ConsumerLab.com found Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% Cacao had more flavanols than Green & Black’s ORGANIC 85% Cacao Bar.

Confectionary manufacturers don’t typically disclose this ratio. The next time you buy chocolate, keep in mind the percentage is only a rough indicator of the amount of cocoa powder in a product. Moreover, the amount of flavanols in a cocoa-based product depends on several factors, including plant genetics and harvesting, processing and preparation techniques.

Also be aware that chocolate is contaminated with toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead and arsenic. Cadmium, which is used in batteries because of its corrosion-resistant qualities, is naturally present in miniscule amounts in all soil and rocks. Cadmium and other heavy metals get into cocoa from a plant’s root system.

The World Health Organization recommends that no cocoa product should contain more than 0.3 micrograms (mcg) of cadmium per gram of chocolate.

ConsumerLab discovered several cocoa and chocolate products had high concentrations of cadmium, while a few products had small amounts of lead. Reserveage CocoaWell True Energy and CocoaVia, both of which are made from cocoa extracts, were richest in flavanols and lowest in cadmium.

The extraction process allows for the removal of unwanted contaminants, such as cadmium, while concentrating the flavanols. ConsumerLab found that NuNaturals Pure Liquid Cocoa Bean Extract contained virtually no flavanols.

The most economical sources of flavanols were dark chocolate bars, according to the review. They were also free of unacceptable heavy metal contamination.

Chocolate bars on ConsumerLab’s approved list include Baker’s Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Bar All Natural, Endangered species Chocolate Natural Dark Chocolate with 88% Cocoa, Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% Cacao, Hershey’s Special Dark, Green & Black’s ORGANIC 85% Cacao Bar, Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa Supreme Dark and Trader Joe’s 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate.

And, forget about supplements to nourish your body with flavanols. For example, you would need to consume 60 capsules of Swanson Full Spectrum Cacao to achieve 200 mg of flavanols because each pill only contains 3.3 mg of flavanols.

Although ConsumerLab approved the Swanson product and others, the number of pills needed daily to achieve 200 mg is something more than I think most people would want to stomach.

Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at masterscorefitness.com, or email your fitness questions to jayne@masterscorefitness.com

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at masterscorefitness.com.

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