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Chocolate: Cure or Comfort?

It's hard to keep tabs on all of chocolate's professed health benefits. But are any of them true, or just hype to melt away the guilt when indulging in this ultimate feel-good food?

Myth #1: Chocolate beats depression.
Nobody can argue with the saying that chocolate is cheaper than therapy and you don't need an appointment. Let's be honest here, who doesn't reach out for that candy bar when feeling down. While it is true that cocoa is known for being a powerhouse of 'feel-good' hormones, there is no evidence that chocolate has a sustained effect on improving mood. Also, how can one explain that when chocoholics were given cocoa in capsules - without the fat and sugary goodness and without the sensation of chocolate melting in their mouth - it had no satisfying effect at all? A surprising turnaround, the latest studies have even pointed the finger at chocolate as a possible trigger for depression, after researchers discovered that people who ate chocolate regularly were more depressed than those who only enjoyed it occasionally. Clearly, the jury is still out on whether this beloved confection can make or break your mood!

Myth #2: Chocolate reduces stress.
Gather a few people, feed them chocolate, and test their stress level afterwards, and you too can make erroneous claims that chocolate cuts down tension. Just because one measly study reported a lowering of stress hormones after chocolate consumption does in no way imply that chocolate is a good stress reliever. Besides, think about how much more stressed you will be after gaining a few pounds from bingeing on chocolate? Nothing is wrong with cozying up to your favorite comfort food after a long day's work, but these studies may be interpreted wrongly, especially by greedy chocolate makers who would love to bank on them. It is a good thing that there are governmental agencies overseeing our food, so that food companies are prevented from marketing false health claims. Advocating the use of chocolate to ease stress will only fuel emotional eating disorders and there are much more effective ways to handle life's challenges with chocolate not being one of them!

Myth #3: Chocolate protects against heart disease.
Dubbing chocolate as a wonder food in a backdrop of soaring obesity and diabetes rates is reckless propaganda and satisfies just one agenda - the chocolate industry. Although dark chocolate has been shown to slightly lower blood pressure, the British Heart Foundation warns that chocolate is a treat, not treatment. A Hershey's bar will not fend off heart disease, so stick with the proven techniques, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, watching your cholesterol intake and eating a nutrient-dense diet.

It is important to know that all of the studies use dark chocolate with a minimum content of at least 70 percent of cacao solids, which is unlike your ordinary chocolate that most people pick up from the grocery store. The bitterness of the chocolate comes from the flavanols (the good stuff), so if the chocolate is not bitter, you can kiss any health benefits goodbye. But, truthfully speaking, how many of us would grab the bitter chocolate over the sweet when the sugar craving hits? The processed varieties that contain the unhealthy ingredients (hydrogenated oils, milk fat, corn syrup, and so on) are in such demand that chocolate makers go to great lengths to remove the bitterness from the natural cacao beans.

It is unarguable that the healthful traits of cacao make it unique, but whether the slew of "studies" gives chocolate any health bragging rights is highly doubtful. Interestingly enough, Cadbury puts a health message logo on its chocolate products advising consumers to "be treatwise" (an indirect warning that too much chocolate can lead to obesity so as to protect them from lawsuits). In addition, the European Food Safety Authority shot down chocolate's health claims, thereby shattering the hopes of the chocolate industry to advertise the alleged health benefits.

As with anything sweet, moderation is the key. Fruits and vegetables can do the trick in providing a healthy dose of antioxidants, and unlike chocolate, you can even eat as much as you want! Let's leave chocolate to the connoisseurs and chocolate lovers alike who revel in its divine taste, not for prescriptions, since who really needs an excuse to eat this sinful delight?

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