Caring Currents

To Eat, Or Not to Eat

Last updated:

February 12, 2010
organic dark chocolate
Image by f10n4 used under the creative commons attribution license.

This week, two nutrition studies swept across the newspapers and airwaves. Did you see them? Here are the short-and-sweet headline versions:

1. Soda pop causes pancreatic cancer.
2. Chocolate prevents stroke.

These studies got a lot of attention because these are popular foods. One study warns of a serious disease we all fear, while the other gives you another reason to eat something you want to eat anyway. But are they true? To be honest, even after taking a look at the actual data, I'm still not sure, and I'm not sure the experts know either. But they make sense and fit with what we already know about nutrition, so they do make important points.

The Problem with Soda
Most soft drinks are made with highly concentrated sweeteners, like high-fructose corn sweetener. Even the "healthier" versions made with good old-fashioned sugar deliver it in a highly concentrated dose. The job of the pancreas is to secrete insulin when needed to process sugar, so when you hit your body with a wallop of sugar, the pancreas goes into overdrive. Experts at the University of Minnesota followed 60,000 people in China and found a link between those who drank large quantities of soda and the incidence of pancreatic cancer. The researchers theorize that stressing the pancreas repeatedly with high doses of sugar leads to inflammation, which in turn sets up a vulnerability to pancreatic cancer.

Their study found that people who drank two or more sodas a week had an 87 percent increase in their risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Since pancreatic cancer is rare, and the overall risk of developing it is low, even an 87 percent increase is not as big as it sounds. But pancreatic cancer is a particularly deadly type of cancer, killing most of those who get it within a few years. So protecting our pancreas is something we all need to take seriously.

Is Chocolate Really Good for You?
Yes, say researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, who released data showing that dark chocolate lowers your risk of stroke, and lessens the likelihood of death after a stroke, as well. It's not the chocolate that's so healthy; it's a flavonoid called epicatechin, which is present in the original cocoa beans from which chocolate is made. (It's easy to forget that chocolate comes originally from plants.) The plant-based chemical relaxes blood vessels and clears cholesterol, easing blood flow to and from the heart.

Flavonoids are present primarily in dark chocolate; the process used to create milk chocolate dilutes them. So the M&Ms and Hershey's milk chocolate kisses don't count.

But here's the rub: To offset the bitterness of the cacao beans, chocolate contains a lot of sugar, and sugar's not good for you. So yes, chocolate is good for you, but only dark chocolate. And it's only good for you in small doses, so don't overwhelm your body with a blood sugar spike. (See previous item about soda pop, insulin, and the health of your pancreas.)

So What's the Answer? Moderation in All Things.
Limit yourself to the occasional soda -- one a week or less. Drink water or fruit juice the rest of the time; the study found no link between juice and pancreatic cancer. Even better, drink milk -- it builds bone and contains vitamin D, which is turning out to be the greatest cancer-preventative of all time.

Allow yourself a two-inch square (3-4 ounces) of dark chocolate a day; it makes a great late-afternoon pick-me-up. Then put away the rest of the bar and get out the fruit. This month has also seen the publication of studies demonstrating that blueberries prevent colon cancer, mangoes and pomegranates prevent breast cancer, and the combination of yogurt and blueberries together cures intestinal disorders.

None of this is news, of course; experts have been saying for years that blueberries and other colorful fruits are rich in the phytochemicals that prevent cancer. But the evidence just keeps mounting, with new antioxidants isolated and documented in lab studies each year. I'm sure next week will give us a new ingredient to add to our fruit salads.