Next week you may find yourself on the receiving end of a box of Valentine's Day chocolates. If you do, you should go ahead and indulge.
For most folks, the intense pleasure derived from eating chocolate is followed by an equally intense guilt hangover. Since chocolate tastes so good, it must be bad for you, right?
Not necessarily. Although we've accused chocolate of causing everything from acne to hyperactivity, it doesn't. When eaten responsibly, chocolate is as innocent as Cupid himself. There's plenty of room in a healthy diet for moderate amounts of the sweet stuff, and it may even have some benefits.
Contrary to popular teenage myth, chocolate doesn't cause acne. In fact, no food does. Acne is more related to genetics and hormones than it is to diet.
Chocolate doesn't wreak the dental havoc our mothers told us it would, either. It's true that sugary foods can lead to tooth decay if you don't brush your teeth regularly. But unlike most sweet treats, chocolate contains anti-bacterial substances that slow the destructive action of cavity-causing enzymes and prevent plaque formation, reversing much of the damage caused by sugar.
The melting temperature of chocolate -- 92 degrees F -- allows it to melt in your mouth instead of sticking to your teeth. Foods that lodge themselves in dental nooks and crannies, like hard candies, caramels and raisins, are much worse cavity-causing culprits than chocolate.
Chocolate won't cause hyperactivity in you, or in your children, for that matter. It may have a mild stimulatory effect, but not because of its caffeine content. A chocolate candy bar contains around 9 milligrams of caffeine, compared to the 180 milligrams found in a strong cup of coffee. Chocolate does contain traces of theobromine, a mild stimulant that can step up your heart rate and increase alertness, but a single serving won't make you hyperactive or cost you sleep.
We like to blame our weight-related miseries on chocolate. It's true that hefty amounts of any food can make you fat, but when eaten in moderation, chocolate isn't any more fattening than other snack foods. A 1.5-ounce milk chocolate bar has just 220 delicious calories and about 5 grams of fat, compared to the 230 calories and 6 grams of fat found in a single serving of potato chips.
Even the fat in chocolate isn't as bad as it could be. More than half of the saturated fat is stearic acid, a type that doesn't drive up blood cholesterol levels. And the fat in chocolate contains alpha-tocopherol, a form of Vitamin E.
A piece of chocolate a day may help keep the doctor away. In a Harvard study of 7,800 men, candy consumption was associated with greater longevity. Men who indulged on a regular basis lived almost a year longer than those who abstained.
Chocolate may owe its life-extending properties to ingredients known as polyphenols. These antioxidants have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and protect cells from cancer-causing free radicals. A 1-ounce chunk of milk chocolate provides as many antioxidants as Americans typically get in a day's supply of fruits and vegetables, and dark chocolate contains twice that amount.
If you've always known that eating chocolate makes you feel better, now you have scientific evidence to back you up. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA for short), a substance found in high concentrations in the brains of happy people. PEA in the diet combines with chemicals in the brain to produce a sense of calm and well being, similar to the feeling of being in love. Although other foods, like sauerkraut, are richer sources of PEA, chocolate is unquestionably a more palatable package.
For most folks, nothing can take the place of chocolate. It is the most commonly craved food in North America, especially among women. According to a study published in the 1999 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 40 percent of women and 15 percent of men report having chocolate cravings on a regular basis. Giving into those cravings results in a total chocolate consumption of about 25 pounds per person per year.
Chocolate has always been a symbol of love and indulgence. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a box of chocolates this Valentine's Day, consider yourself loved, and go ahead and indulge -- guilt free.
Dr. Rallie McAllister is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn. Her column will appear three times a month on this page.