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Why Chocolate Isn't Verboten

The answer lies in the cocoa butter, which soothes like olive oil

We have Christopher Columbus to thank for introducing cocoa beans to the European palate in the 15th century. But it fell to several American medical researchers recently to reveal that indulging a chocolate habit may be a reasonably healthy thing to do. Not that anyone is recommending that you substitute chocolate for fruits and vegetables, but when it comes to your heart's health, certain types of chocolate seem to have the same salutary effect as olive oil.

This is surprising since chocolate is high in saturated fatty acids, which normally boost blood cholesterol levels sharply, clogging arteries and paving the way for heart attacks. But chocolate is made of cocoa butter, a saturated fatty acid unusual for its large amounts of stearic acid. When stearic acid enters the digestive system, it is converted by the liver to oleic acid, a substance that is also found in olive and canola oils and that has no ill effects on blood cholesterol levels.

In a recent study by Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton of Pennsylvania State University, subjects who followed a diet rich in cocoa butter saw no rise in their blood cholesterol levels; the same results were observed in participants on a diet heavy with olive oil. But a group with a diet rich in dairy butter experienced clear increases in its cholesterol readings.

Dark chocolate is healthier than milk chocolate because milk chocolate includes not only cocoa butter but also milk-based butterfat. Some chocolate products like cocoa mixes and candy bar coatings may also use tropical oils like coconut and palm oil, which also boost cholesterol counts. But if you're eating dark chocolate, two or three chocolate bars a week pose no real heart risk, according to researcher Scott Grundy of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where much of the chocolate study is taking place.

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Updated on April 10, 1996