Is chocolate really good for you?

And, while we’re at it, what about red wine and tea? Or are they bad for you? Every week there’s a report suggesting that some food or other is good or bad for you. Why can’t those pesky scientists get it together and decide which it really is?

Usually the report includes a plausible sounding explanation. When chocolate, red wine and tea are involved the magic ingredients are resveratrol, “phenolic substances”, or simply antioxidants. Ah, yes, antioxidants. Despite the reverence with which they are treated they are actually very common in our diet. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants, for instance. The body even makes its own.

The jury is still out on whether extra antioxidants are particularly good for you. They may sound good on paper, roving around the body mopping up “free radicals”, but at least some antioxidant supplements seem to do more harm than good.

Let’s not get too caught up in these details of the magic ingredients, though, because that’s what lies at the root of uncertainty about the benefits of foods that contain them. Don’t forget that even if a food contains one chemical that does you good, it also contains others that may cancel out the benefits. One review of the research into resveratrol, for example, sternly points out that the levels typically tested are much higher than you can get from drinking moderate amounts of red wine. It may be that to drink enough wine to protect your heart you’d have to destroy your liver (by the way, moderate alcohol intake of any kind provides some protective benefits for the heart).

A few antioxidants aren’t enough to sneak chocolate into one of the more nutritious levels of the food pyramid. It’s still chocolate and contains sugar, fat and caffeine — to name just three dietary bogey men.

If you’re eating chocolate solely for its supposed healthy qualities, or using them as an excuse to indulge your habit, then you’re rather missing the point anyway. Don’t worry so much. Whether it’s good for you or bad for you — or both — chocolate will always taste great.

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