Chocolate Season

December 2, 2014 in Antioxidants, Food and the Brain, Health Claims by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve heard it said that Chocolate Season begins with Halloween and ends with New Year’s resolutions. I’m certain that’s just a joke, because as anyone who fills Easter Eggs knows – most of the children enjoy chocolate candy in their eggs and Easter never falls between Halloween and the first of January.

It seems to me that Thanksgiving is a low-chocolate island in this seasonal chocolate indulgence time. We fill ourselves with so much other food on Thanksgiving Day that chocolate is a tiny portion. But shortly after Thanksgiving Day the chocolate quickly gets added back into the “menu,” if you will. It gets cold – hot cocoa. Gifts are being given and received – chocolate candy, chocolate candy, and chocolate candy. Desserts are made for special holiday meals – chocolate cream pie and double chocolate cake. And, of course, don’t forget the chocolate bar picked up at the gas stop on the way to the holiday meals; or for that matter, when you’re racing around doing holiday errands. No doubt about it, it’s a magnificent time of year, if you’re Mars, Hershey’s and Lindt (and the vast list of other confectioners.)

We used to think about chocolate as an extravagance, a nice little treat. But now chocolate is a frequent, maybe even multiple times a day visitor to our palate. I can’t tell you how many times friends have counseled me: “But don’t forget how healthy chocolate is.” In the November 21, 2014 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, Flavanol-rich food for thought; we are given more “evidence” and basis for rationalizing our huge chocolate intake. What could make us happier than to enjoy the velvety, fantastic flavor of chocolate AND improve our memory at the same time?

If eating chocolate were the answer to memory, I should certainly be able to remember all of my 36 grandchildren's birthdays with no help from my computer calendar. I should be able to remember what I’m looking for when I’m standing in the pantry asking myself, “What am I in here for?” It must not be as easy as eating 3 or 4 chocolate chips after each meal or a piece of chocolate at bedtime to get the super memory.

Let me share with you a few of the concerns about the chocolate research that is mulling around in my chocolate-enhanced mind. Certainly eating chocolate daily should make my thinking clear and incisive if the research were actually fully valid with the small dose I “take.”  But without any mental enhancement, I would still come to these conclusions:

  • I find it absolutely fascinating that Mars Inc. is where this 6-year study in Nature Neuroscience got its funding. If the researchers at Columbia University Medical Center decide to replicate their work, it would be so nice for those of us, who follow nutrition-related work, to know Mars or any other chocolate candy company did not fund the replication.
  • “Small studies” (37 people in the study) such as the one linked in this piece, always need to be replicated; so this is not the definitive answer to whether you should have more chocolate or not.
  • Less than 20 volunteers, who drank a special concoction of a cocoa flavanols-containing drink, reportedly improved their memories by 20 to 30 years. Really? Hope so, ‘cause if it’s ever proven, it shouldn’t be too miserable to take the meds.
  • Even the researchers and the Alzheimer’s Association caution the general public that the average person can’t boost their powers of recall with commercially available chocolate or cocoa products. Rats!
  • Flavanols are found in many types of foods, including tealeaves, fruits and vegetables, in addition to raw cocoa. Cacao is not a unique medical plant.
  • The processing of consumer chocolate products renders them flavanols-free. Boo double Hoo. I was ready to go on a chocolate binge. OK, not really!
  • Yes, indeed, there are flavanols in chocolate, but in minuscule amounts. The research shows that the special drink helped.  No research was reported showing that one could get the same results by eating chocolate candy, nor how much you would have to eat to get an equivalent “dose” found in the drink – or which candies even retained after processing the same flavanols in any amount. The researchers are not obligated to do these other studies, but each reader who would like to believe it is obligated to think through the absence of this information.

These bullet points on how to understand this study argue strongly that even if the results were replicated by an unbiased, and especially, by researchers highly skeptical of the claims, this would still not constitute proof that the benefits of the flavanols that might be there in small quantities in chocolate candy outweigh the downsides of the sugar, wax and saturated fats known to be there in larger quantities. What is going on is that the study’s financial sponsors would like you to believe that the positive results will also come about in your life if you eat candy.  The more strongly we want to eat chocolate candy, the stronger will be our faith in a link that has not been proven, nor that even meets the test of common sense.

There is a growing body of evidence that what affects our body – affects our brain. We know that our heart and brain are benefited by exercise and diet; so go slow on the chocolate and pay attention to your exercise and diet (lots of vegetables, whole grains and fruit.) My personal advice is that cheap chocolate candy like Mars, and many of the other candy makers tend to make, is loaded with saturated fat and wax, and a substantial sugar load. It’s not going to benefit anything except your taste buds and pleasure center. So if you decide to indulge on a lovely piece of chocolate, enjoy the nice little treat and extravagance in your diet. Maybe thinking of it as a little treat and extravagance will help protect you from over indulgence and remorse when the Chocolate Season ends and the scale confronts you with the price of your plentiful indulgences.