Chocolate: Friend Or Foe?

“Mama, a few chocolate chips, please!” my daughter requested.  She was about 3 at the time.

“Did you have a rough day at preschool?” I asked.

She gave me a puzzled look and held out her hand. I grabbed a bowl and added some chips. I didn’t want melted chocolate from her hands on the walls.

“Do not share any chocolate with our puppies, though,” I said.

I don’t think she would have been that generous, anyway. She wanted all the chocolate.

The theobromine naturally present in chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can be toxic to pets, particularly dogs. In humans, the compound is linked to chocolate’s reported mood-improving characteristics.

I started a trend. Whenever we arrived at home, my daughter smiled her most dazzling, dimpled grin and requested chocolate chips.  In fact she still loves chocolate 11 years later.

I don’t think her preschool-age smile was all that sincere, but it usually netted her a half-dozen chocolate chips. She liked dark chocolate the best. At least she liked the type with some potential health benefits.

“We need to buy chocolate stars,” she noted one day.

She was a savvy preschooler. Chocolate stars are bigger than chips.

Chocolate is a popular treat. On average, we each consume about 11 pounds of chocolate yearly, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture food consumption surveys.

Chocolate is sometimes touted as a “health food.” The good news: Several studies show some health benefits associated with moderate chocolate consumption.  Note the word “moderate.”

According to researchers at Cornell University, a cup of hot cocoa may be better for us than some other beverages linked with heart health. The researchers measured the presence of antioxidants, or “phenolic phytochemicals,” in cocoa, green tea and red wine. Antioxidants protect cells and tissues from damage by “free radicals” that roam the body and promote heart disease, cancer and other health problems.

The Cornell researchers reported that cocoa has more antioxidant compounds than either red wine or tea. The researchers recommended enjoying all three beverages at different times of the day.

Researchers in Finland reported some potential heart health benefits of consuming chocolate, too. For three weeks, 45 healthy volunteers consumed about 2.5 ounces daily of white chocolate, dark chocolate or dark chocolate enriched with cocoa polyphenols along with their regular diet. The researchers monitored their blood chemistry.

White chocolate had a negative effect, lowering HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels. Dark chocolate had a positive effect, but dark chocolate enriched with extra cocoa polyphenols had the greatest potential health benefit by raising HDL levels the most.

Enjoy some chocolate, especially dark chocolate, but keep moderation in mind. Remember that chocolate bars are energy dense, with about 240 calories and 13.5 grams of fat per 1.6-ounce bar. Try a few chocolate chips or chocolate kisses.

Consider having a cup of antioxidant-rich cocoa with an interesting twist, such as the following recipe from Hershey’s Kitchens.

Cocoa Café Ole

1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. cocoa (unsweetened)
3 Tbsp. powdered instant coffee
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
4 c. milk

Combine the sugar, cocoa, instant coffee and cinnamon in a large saucepan. Gradually stir in the milk; heat, stirring occasionally, to serving temperature. Pour into cups and serve immediately. Makes four servings. A one-cup serving has 180 calories, 35 grams (g) carbohydrate, 1 g fat, 1 g fiber and 105 milligrams sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., F.A.N.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)