Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Opinion: Don't mess with chocolate, or any other food for that matter

First Oreos, then chocolate and stroke risk, and now an alert reader has sent me another chocolate related article from the UK: Fruit Juice Infused Chocolate to Reduce Fat Consumption.  One of my first thoughts is "This isn't going to end well."  And I, of course, will tell you why.

First of all I need to state that from the perspective of a person with food intolerances I am fascinated by people who have the food chemistry knowledge to actually create a product that has a similar mouth feel and flavor to the original.  I've written before about how in many cases substitutes are not always a good idea but sometimes I just want to eat a piece of pizza, dammit, and I am happy that someone has come up with a recipe where I can have a decent crust.  When someone starts talking about removing something from a particular food, however, that's where I start to get even more skeptical about the supposed benefits.

In this particular case they are trying to remove the fat from the product, and I assume it's because they think the fat content is a bad thing.  When we look at the breakdown of the types of fats that are in cocoa butter, and therefore in a chocolate bar, you will find that the main type of fat is something called stearic acid.  So far the evidence points to this type of fat having either a neutral impact on the concentration of LDL cholesterol (often called "the bad cholesterol") in the blood or might even lower it slightly (Link).  The second type of fat found in chocolate is oleic acid, and this type of fat also seems to either be neutral or quite possibly raise HDL ("good cholesterol") levels. (1, 2) although.  So, since there isn't really any solid evidence that the fat in chocolate might impact lipid levels and/or risk of cardiovascular disease, it doesn't seem to me that removing something that gives chocolate it's unique texture isn't really worth it.

On a related note, some will point out that fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrate, so it could be that they are trying to lower the calorie content of the chocolate?  This hasn't always worked out to well when it comes to food manufacturing.  Some products like "low fat" cookies, chips, frozen desserts, etc have almost the same amount of calories per serving, or there may be only a 20-30 calorie different.  Usually when you remove fat from a product you have to replace it with something, and that something is more carbohydrate in some form usually.  So, depending on the type of fruit juice used in this product you may wind up with more carbohydrate than before, and if you have diabetes/pre-diabetes or some other type of insulin resistant problem you certainly won't be able to work that product in too often and still stay within your carbohydrate limit.

One other problem that I still see a lot is that when some people see a product is "low fat," or "sugar-free" or "low carb" (or whatever apellation it's given) their ability to look at portion sizes and control how much they're eating goes out the window.  As a result, they actually wind up taking in more calories or carbohydrate than they did before, and possibly doing more harm to their efforts to lose weight, etc, than before.  Now, one of the versions of the chocolate bar that was mentioned, the one with vitamin C/citric acid and water, might have significantly less calories/carbs per serving--but if your double/triple/quadruple your  Anytime an advertisement catches your eye, try to up your scrutinization of the label a little more; in other words, up your skeptical quotient even more when you see any of these "special" products.  I also happen to think that the use of some of these items creates a type of "tunnel vision" where we only focus on one food or one nutrient as being "bad" and we cease to look at our diet as a whole.  For example, I've had some patients over the years who were very, very careful with their fat and cholesterol intake, but they were completely ignorant of how much added sugar they were taking in.  Even pointing out to them that their "fat-free yogurt" with fruit had a lot more calories than plain yogurt or even a glass of whole would still result in "why can't I lose weight?"

The other problem I have with foods that are manipulated to be "healthier" is I always fear that we might wind up with the "McDonald's problem."  At one time the popular fast food chain used beef tallow to cook its french fries, but by 1990 they had switched to vegetable based oil/shortening in order to lower the saturated fat content of its foods.  Unfortunately, it turns out the new oil was worse in that it contained more trans-fatty acids, meaning that you now were eating something that could increase insulin resistance, inflammation, and lower your good cholesterol on top of getting a load of low nutrition carbohydrates that you didn't need.  McDonalds is back to using oil with less trans fat, but couldn't we have save some time and effort by just saying "Look, french fries are a carbohydrate/calorie load however you look at it, nobody eats them for health reasons, and they need to be a treat" instead of trying to mess with the original product?  (I know, I know.  It wouldn't have been good for advertising, which is once again why no-one wants me to work in marketing).

And then there are other consequences that ripple through the food production world that we may not see.  I still remember the days, and I regret it now, when we as dietitians used to be so picky about telling our patients/clients to eat "white meat" over "dark meat."  At the time I didn't know that chickens were being bred to have breasts so large they would in horrible pain if they lived to long, and I also wasn't thinking about how wasteful that was.  I should have been encouraging people to buy whole chickens or whole chicken parts and use up the leftovers for the week.  Here's a post with video about this, be careful as there is video footage of what I consider animal cruelty: Big Breasts Sell on Chickens Too.

So back to the end of this past Monday's post I talked about how to best enjoy chocolate and maybe get a few health benefits out of it too.  So your take home message for today is--know your limits and enjoy foods in the most natural state possible.

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