Changing the Fat in Chocolate

A petition to change the way the Food and Drug Administration defines chocolate could have implications beyond the candy aisles, health experts suggest.

The petition, signed by players in the chocolate lobby and representatives from various sectors of the food industry, seeks changes in certain food standard definitions.

Among these suggested changes is one that would allow manufacturers to use vegetable oil rather than the current standard, cacao fat, also known as cocoa butter, to make chocolate.

The move, if it ever becomes reality, would strike at the heart of many chocolate aficionados, as many true connoisseurs have been known to choose their chocolate based on cacao content alone.

For the candy industry, on the other hand, the move could be a boon. The switch to vegetable oil could mean a sweeter profit margin for manufacturers who use less expensive vegetable oil in their products.

But some nutrition experts say that aside from commercial dividends, chocolate manufacturers may also tout the move away from cocoa butter, which is rich in saturated fatty acids, to give their products a healthier image.

This, said Lona Sandon, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, would be an example of wishful thinking at best.

"By changing out the butter fat and replacing it with vegetable oil, all you've done is change the type of fat in the chocolate bar," Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern University, said.

Selling the Idea

"Sure, you may be taking out some of the saturated fat and replacing it with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, but you still haven't created a health food here."

Sandon said that if the petition actually succeeds in changing the way the FDA labels chocolate, there is little question that the candy industry will put a healthy spin on the change.

"They absolutely will take advantage of that," she said. "You'll see 'low saturated fat' candy bars on the market."

This aspect of the change could add further credence to the popular notion of chocolate as a health food.

Is Chocolate Really Healthy?

Touting certain health benefits of chocolate may not be entirely unwarranted. A growing body of research suggests that certain compounds in chocolate can have a host of health benefits.

"We have heard how chocolate may be associated with a cardioprotective effect, and that it may lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol," said Dr. Randall Zusman, director of Massachusetts General Hospital's division of hypertension.

"From my perspective, it is interesting that a natural product, especially something like chocolate, may have a beneficial effect."

The positive effects shown thus far are predominantly associated with substances called flavonoids, which are abundant in raw, unprocessed chocolate.

These substances are thought to be potent antioxidants -- chemicals in food that have shown promise in halting the destructive action of free radicals in the body, which may lead to cancer.

But if you're looking for a sweet and simple solution, don't unwrap that candy bar just yet. The process that chocolate beans undergo between the field and the candy jar often rob chocolate of many of these helpful substances.

"The way that chocolate is manufactured and processed, most of the flavonoids are no longer present once it hits the shelves and our mouths," Sandon said.

She adds that thus far, only one company has adopted the special, gentle processing method necessary to preserve the flavonoids in chocolate -- the Mars company. And even then, she said any health claims the manufacturer makes about its chocolate would not likely stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Zusman agrees that it's not just the ingredients, but also the process, that determine the health benefits of something like chocolate.

"I think the closer you get to a substance or a product that has pure beneficial agents, the greater the likelihood you will have a favorable action associated with it," he said.

"With natural products, it is always a question on the ingredients in the products. Manipulation of natural products that may make sense intellectually may not make sense biologically."

And though changing the type of fat used to make chocolate may not have an effect on flavonoid content, it's not likely that it will make chocolatey treats any better for consumers.

"Honestly, changing the type of fat that is used I don't think will make a difference," Sandon said. "As a registered dietitian, I can say that no matter what you do to that chocolate bar, it's still calories and fat."

Moderation Is Key

Sandon said the healthiest approach to chocolate, whether it's made with cocoa butter or vegetable fat, is to view it the same way as it has been in the past -- as a sweet and occasional treat.

"It really does still come back to the idea of moderation," she said. "There is much better information supporting increased fruit and vegetable intake as far as heart health.

"Chocolate is not a health food. No matter how you package it."