WASHINGTON - As sales of chocolate reached $13 billion in 1998, candy was not all the industry was selling, according to Bonnie Liebman, Director of Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The chocolate industry, based on research that it sponsored, claim that chocolate is virtually a health food. But Liebman says that chocolate candy is about as healthful as, well, chocolate candy.

     “The industry would have us believe that chocolate candy is right up there with fruits and vegetables,” said Liebman. “But chocolate is not a health food. If people are eating chocolate candy for their health rather than for pleasure, they’re fooling themselves. Considering that candy consumption has grown 50 percent since 1980, chocolate is certainly contributing to obesity.”

     In an article in the March issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action HealthletterLiebman punctures the myths that the industry is weaving around chocolate.

Myth #1--Chocolate Helps Prevent Cancer

     Based on the fact that chocolate contains high levels of certain antioxidants, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association’s Web site implies that eating a few Hershey Kisses is tantamount to eating a salad. The site states that antioxidants “mop up” free radicals, which may be the “triggers” for cancer. Ingredients “may reduce the risk for developing cancer.” In fact, hundreds of studies on people link diets high in fruits and vegetables to a lower risk of cancer, while there are no human studies on chocolate and cancer.

Myth #2 - Chocolate Protects the Heart

     The industry web site says that a “growing body of research” indicates that ingredients in chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease. It is true that chocolate contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that does not raise cholesterol levels. But chocolate contains other fats that do. When it comes to raising blood cholesterol, chocolate is comparable to lard. In addition, stearic acid may promote blood clots, which could lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Myth #3 - Eating Chocolate Doesn’t Make You Fat

     The chocolate industry says that “there is no scientific evidence that chocolate consumption is associated with obesity.” It adds that “no single food causes obesity or weight gain.” In fact, chocolate is one of many foods that contribute to obesity. Like any fatty and sugary foods, chocolates are calorie-dense. They pack a lot of calories into a small volume, which makes it easy to overeat.

     Eating chocolate as a snack compounds the problem. “If you eat chocolate between meals, when you’re most hungry, it rapidly satisfies your hunger and that reinforces your craving for it,” says obesity expert Barbara Rolls, of Pennsylvania State University. Her advice: “Break the cycle by having a delicious piece of chocolate at the end of a meal, when you’re already satisfied, and you’ll be less likely to overindulge.”

     “You don’t need to swear off chocolate entirely,” says Liebman. "If your diet is high in vegetables, fruit, lean protein, and whole grains, a little chocolate is OK. But many Americans eat a steady diet of cheeseburgers, pizza, doughnuts, french fries, ice cream, and other fatty, fattening foods. They need chocolate like they need pats of butter to swallow between meals.

     “If you have a hankering for something chocolate,” Liebman continued, “try a small chocolate candy or a York Peppermint Pattie. One 1.5-ounce pattie provides 170 calories, but only two grams of saturated fat. Beware of the huge chocolate candies sold at movie theaters, which have 400 to 800 calories per box or bar.”