We know in our hearts we lust after chocolate, now scientific studies absolve it of some of its sins NUTRITION


It's always interesting when scientific studies say good things about foods we have a passion for -- especially when they're foods associated with some degree of guilt. Given this, I'm sure many will be pleased that the topic for today is chocolate.

There's little doubt chocolate would appear near the top of any list of favorite food flavors. This taste, which has been cherished by many cultures throughout history, has a definite ability to please the palate.

But chocolate has a reputation as a mixed blessing. Along with that singular taste and texture, chocolate is routinely censured for its hefty burden of saturated fat, its caffeine content, its reputation for aggravating acne, provoking allergies and causing tooth decay.

All this, however, hasn't stopped Americans from leading the world in their annual consumption of about 3 billion pounds of chocolate. What would you expect from the confection named by Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus as "the food of the gods?"

Well, there's some good news for chocoholics: That darkish delicacy may not be the dietary dastard it once was thought to be.

Chocolate comes from the seed pods of the cacao (pronounced: ca-COW), a tropical evergreen tree. The pods, which resemble papaya, are harvested and the inner core of white beans, called cocoa beans, is removed.

The cocoa beans are roasted and ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor. The liquor, about 50 percent fat by weight, then serves as the base ingredient in the manufacture of all forms of chocolate.

Cocoa powder is made by extracting most of the fat, called cocoa butter, from the chocolate liquor paste. The solid chocolate we eat is made by combining chocolate liquor with more cocoa butter, varying amounts of sugar and milk, depending on the type of chocolate desired and whether the final product is to be a milk chocolate.

Let's take a look at some criticisms leveled against chocolate:

* Fat content: About one third of the fat in chocolate is oleic acid, the mono-unsaturated fat found in olive oil. Another third is stearic acid, a saturated fat found to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol. In fact, when cocoa butter was used in laboratory studies, it was found to cause no elevation in blood cholesterol levels.

* Caffeine: In a 1.5 ounce bar of milk chocolate, there is only about 9 milligrams of caffeine (a cup of hot cocoa has about 5 milligrams of caffeine). Nine milligrams of caffeine equals 1 tablespoon of brewed coffee or less than 3 ounces of a cola beverage -- an insufficient quantity to cause stimulation. One would have to eat over a pound of chocolate, or drink 1.5 gallons of hot cocoa to get the caffeine-stimulant effect of one cup of coffee.

* Allergy: While it's possible for one to be allergic to any food, allergies to chocolate, it turns out, are quite rare.

* Acne: Chocolate has traditionally been one of the first food items removed from the diet of an acne-prone individual. Controlled studies, however, have shown that chocolate does not contribute to the outbreak of acne.

* Tooth decay: 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 the fat content prevents the confection from sticking to teeth.

And while we're on the topic of nutrients, it may be of interest to note that a 1.5 ounce bar of milk chocolate supplies almost 10 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance for riboflavin, phosphorus, calcium, copper and over 20 percent of the RDA for vitamin E.

Making a case for chocolate is not meant to encourage overindulgence. As we acknowledge chocolate's appeal and attempt to shed light on some misinformation, we must always be mindful that chocolate is high in fat. Whether it's milk chocolate or a higher quality bittersweet, fat content ranges between 50 and 75 percent of calories -- well above the daily average of 30 percent of calories recommended by many health experts.

But chocolate is not a staple food, it's a treat, so large quantities rarely are eaten at one time. As such, when looked at in the perspective of the total day's diet, the fat contribution from an occasional chocolate indulgence may not be significant -- and look what you have to gain.

Ed Blonz is a nutrition scientist based in Berkeley, Calif.

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