Coffee & Chocolate – The Health Facts You Need To Know

“Friends or Foes”

Chocolate & Coffee…Arguably, two of modern society’s more controversial of substances. For some, an indulgence, for others a daily necessity or “fix”, but, no matter what the context, there can be no doubt that the popularity of these substances is showing no sign of slowing, and it is for this reason that they warrant closer inspection…to look beyond mere “taste” and social association…and to understand the potential health implications of these two substances.

So, are coffee and chocolate good for us, or not?

Perhaps more importantly; if chocolate and coffee do provide health risks, what are they? And is there a way we can consume them without the associated potential risks to our health.

To find the answers, let’s study each separately:

1. Investigating Chocolate:

Chocolate is currently enjoying renewed popularity amongst health professionals, many of whom now believe that chocolate – particularly the dark or bitter variety – in small amounts, may possess health-giving properties – i.e. antioxidants called polyphenols – that are believed to help reduce free-radical damage in the body.

In 2001, Pennsylvania State University published a study conducted on 23 men and women in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that showed how dark chocolate helped to reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad cholesterol”) by 8%, and similarly increased HDL cholesterol levels (the “good” cholesterol) by 4%.

But, to fully understand what makes chocolate healthy or unhealthy, we need to look further:

The key factors that affect chocolate’s impact on health are:

1) The type of fat present in the chocolate

2) Whether it is a Dark or Milk variety

3) The sugar content

4) The percentage of cocoa

Let’s review each aspect:

1) The type of fat that has been used

All chocolate basically has the same fat content – i.e. approx 30-35%. However, the type of fat that is used can make a significant difference to one’s health.

Good quality chocolate – be it milk or dark chocolate, unlike cheaper chocolate, derives it fat from Cocoa Butter. Cheaper varieties use hydrogenated vegetable fats – better known as trans fats. Trans fats, which are a cheaper source of fat, are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils (i.e. margarine) and are usually added to foods to increase shelf life (most commercial cookies, muffins, cakes, chocolates, chips and other snacks foods usually contain trans fats). Importantly, trans fats raise LDL levels which can lead to an increase in cardiovascular disease.

Therefore, no matter if it is a Milk or Dark variety, from a cholesterol perspective, it is always better to eat a good quality chocolate instead of cheaper counter varieties.

2) Dark Vs Milk

Many people now generally accept that Dark chocolate is healthier than Milk chocolate, thinking that the only reason is because darker varieties contain less sugar.

Although this is a valid reason, the primary reason is that dark chocolate does not contain any milk fat. Dark chocolate contains a fatty acid known as “Stearic Acid”, which is a saturated fat that does not significantly increase serum cholesterol levels. Milk chocolate, contains milk fat, that contains a fatty acid known as “Palmitic Acid” – a saturated fatty acid that does increase serum cholesterol levels.

Stearic Acid does contain some Palmitic Acid, which is why it is also not wise to eat too much of any form of chocolate.

3) The Sugar Content

Almost all chocolate contains sugar, however, milk chocolate varieties usually contain relatively higher amounts of sugar compared to darker varieties – and hence, as they are not bitter, are usually more popular than darker varieties. The relatively higher sugar content of milk chocolate can stimulate cravings, which can in turn lead to higher quantities being consumed. Given the higher proportion of Palmitic Acid present in milk chocolate, this could significantly impact on serum cholesterol levels in the body.

4) The Percentage of Cocoa

The cocoa content of most chocolates is usually proportionate to the amount of sugar and / or milk fat present.

Most dark varieties have less sugar (and no milk fat), which is why they are generally a better, and safer option in terms of overall health. Also, the antioxidant properties of chocolate are to be found in the cocoa, so darker chocolate is therefore naturally higher in antioxidants.

Most good quality chocolate should have no less than 30% cocoa for milk chocolate, and 48-50% for dark varieties.

The Verdict

Good quality dark chocolate is without doubt the healthier option when considering a chocolate treat – it contains less sugar, higher cocoa content (i.e. higher anti-oxidant levels), and no milk fat.

However, if milk chocolate is desired, always look for a variety that has a minimum of 30% cocoa, and does not include any trans fats (stated as “Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil/fat”; “Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil/fat”; “Hardened Vegetable Oil/Fat”).

2. Investigating Coffee:

Coffee, much like chocolate has almost become a category of its own. There are literally countless different blends, and varieties available – as well as numerous popular preparation methods.

Naturally, it is easy to look at the more obvious dangers of coffee – such as the various “accompaniments” used in preparation – i.e. full-fat milk, cream, sugar, flavoured syrups – all of which are now used in preparing many different coffee concoctions and combinations.

Many believe that by substituting healthier accompaniments, they can freely enjoy coffee without the associated health risks – e.g. substituting full-fat milk/cream with non-fat varieties or using artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.

There is also much debate about whether excess caffeine is detrimental to health, however, to understand why coffee may indeed be harmful, we need to examine not the coffee itself, but more importantly, how it is prepared.

The Studies

The Norwegian Trompso Study (1983) examined the effects of coffee on 7 213 women, and 7 368 men and found that the intake of up to 2 cups per day had little to no affect on total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, finding that these cholesterol levels were only positively affected with consumption of more than 2-3 cups a day.

However, further research into coffee has identified the presence of lipids called diterpenes, a “fat” present in coffee that has been shown to increase serum cholesterol levels in the body.

Importantly, these diterpenes (namely, “cafestol” and “kahweol”) are fat soluble, and are almost completely filtered out by the filter paper used in the preparation of “filtered coffee”.

It is coffee that is prepared without filter paper – i.e. Boiled (Turkish); French Press (Plunger); Espresso (Americano) – where cafestol levels are significant.

Research has shown that each 10mg of cafestol consumed per day can elevate cholesterol by 5mg/dL.

Thus, “espresso” style coffee (or “Americano” style coffee); Cappucinos (which are usually made with a shot of espresso coffee & heated milk), plunger coffee and any style of coffee that doesn’t use filter paper, can increase serum cholesterol levels in the body. The distinguished “crema” that forms on the top of an espresso or “Americano-style” coffee is in fact produced from the lipid (fat) in the coffee and is a quick way to identify which preparation method has been used in preparing the coffee (filtered coffee usually has no crema and has a pure black appearance).

See below for a comparison of diterpene levels in various coffee preparations:

Boiled Unfiltered Coffee – 2.8 mg/Cup
Plunger (Metal Screener/French press) – 3.5 mg/Cup
Turkish Coffee – 3.9 mg/Cup
Espresso – 1.5 mg/Cup

Therefore, 5 cups of espresso per day, could increase serum cholesterol levels by 4 mg/dL, and 5 cups of plunger (or French press) styled coffee could elevate serum cholesterol levels by 8-10 mg/dL.

By comparison, diterpene levels in drip filtered coffee were negligible.

Interestingly, as a nation, Finland switched their coffee from boiled, to filtered, and over a 20 years period experienced a significant drop in cardiovascular mortality over the same period.

The Verdict

Based on the various studies, from a health perspective, it is probably best to try to consume no more than 2-3 cups of any type of coffee a day (including cappuccino and other “gourmet” coffees) – and also, to ensure that where possible, that filtered coffee (filtered with filter paper) is chosen as opposed to espresso-style, plunger (French press) or boiled coffee.

When making espresso style or plunger style coffee at home, it is a good option to first strain the prepared coffee through filter paper before drinking, to capture most of the harmful diterpenes.

Naturally, when having a “white” coffee, always aim for non-fat milk as opposed to full fat or cream, and also keep added sugar to a minimum.