A bum stear."Hearts may safely flutter over Valentine chocolates," trumpeted the front-page headline in the New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Times last Valentines Day. "Good News for Chocoholics," the Washington Post assured its readers.
What triggered this well-timed media outburst? Could it have been the "Chocolate in Perspective" symposium held by the Chocolate Manufacturers Association shortly before the holiday? Nah. Probably just a coincidence.
Unfortunately, the confusion created by all that publicity will probably last a lot longer than the heart-shaped box of candies you were given last February.
CONFUSED ABOUT CANDY
Chocolate is an artery-clogger. Here's why:
* Stearic acid stearic acid /ste·a·ric ac·id/ (ste-ar´ik) a saturated 18-carbon fatty acid occurring in most fats and oils, particularly of tropical plants and land animals; used pharmaceutically as a tablet and capsule lubricant and as an emulsifying hasn't gotten a clean bill of health a certificate from the proper authority that a ship is free from infection.
See also: Clean .
The fat in pure chocolate is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter contains stearic acid, a saturated fat saturated fat, any solid fat that is an ester of glycerol and a saturated fatty acid. The molecules of a saturated fat have only single bonds between carbon atoms; if double bonds are present in the fatty acid portion of the molecule, the fat is said to be that doesn't appear to raise cholesterol levels.
Yet some researchers argue that stearic acid might promote blood clots Blood Clots Definition
A blood clot is a thickened mass in the blood formed by tiny substances called platelets. Clots form to stop bleeding, such as at the site of cut. more than other saturated fats. Others contend that it's less clot-promoting, but their results are also inconclusive (see "The Last Supper," p. 6).
Doubts about clots is one reason that health authorities like the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI NHLBI,
n.pr See National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. ) have yet to declare stearic acid heart-healthy.
"I'm not ready to rush and exonerate stearic acid merely because of its effect on cholesterol," says NHLBI's Basil Rifkind.
* Cocoa butter isn't pure stearic acid.
Even if stearic acid were harmless, that wouldn't make cocoa butter healthy, because it contains other saturated fats.
"Cocoa butter is a cholesterol-raising fat due to its palmitic acid palmitic acid /pal·mit·ic ac·id/ (pal-mit´ik) a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid found in most fats and oils, particularly associated with stearic acid; one of the most prevalent saturated fatty acids in body lipids. ," says William Connor of the Oregon Health Sciences Center in Portland. "We've known that since the 1950s."
In its description of an industry-funded study, the New York Times article implied that cocoa butter raised cholesterol no more than olive oil.
In fact, the olive oil lowered cholesterol in that study. The cocoa butter didn't raise cholesterol levels compared to the men's usual diets, but no one knows for sure what the men usually ate. If it was a typical cholesterol-raising American diet, you wouldn't expect a switch to cocoa butter to budge their cholesterol levels.
The bottom line: Cocoa butter may not raise cholesterol as much as a saturated fat like dairy butter, which is low in stearic acid. But it still raises cholesterol.
* Chocolate candies have fats other than cocoa butter.
To its credit, the Times pointed out that many chocolates are loaded with highly saturated tropical oils like palm and palm kernel. Of course, the palm oil industry will dredge up studies showing that palm doesn't raise cholesterol, either. But that's another story.
The chocolate manufacturers aren't the only ones to make a fuss over stearic acid. The meat industry tried to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to let it subtract stearic acid from the saturated fats listed on food labels.
But so far, the USDA USDA,
n.pr See United States Department of Agriculture. has said no. (Labels can list stearic acid separately, but can't subtract it from "saturated fat.")
And hopes for using stearic acid to replace the trans-laden hydrogenated oils in shortening and other foods have soured.
"It's not going to end up the savior," says Margo Denke of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Dallas. The reason? "Stearic acid has a waxy waxy (wak´se)
1. composed of or covered by wax.
2. resembling wax, especially denoting some combination of pliability, paleness, and smoothness and luster. taste."
Denke ought to know. She tried "enriching" ground beef with stearic acid. "It's not all that it's cracked up to be," she says.
"Chocolate is a fun food," says Denke. "But I'm not recommending that people run out and eat it. There's still a lot of palmitic acid in it."
 Arteriosclerosis arteriosclerosis (ärtĭr'ēōsklərō`sis), general term for a condition characterized by thickening, hardening, and loss of elasticity of the walls of the blood vessels. and Thrombosis 14: 214, 1994.
 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59: 371, 1994.
 Metabolism 42: 121, 1993.