"Foods That Fight Cancer" by Béliveau & Gingras

Richard Béliveau and Denis Gingras conclude that dark chocolate is one of many foods that may help to prevent cancer.

Book review: Foods That Fight Cancer
"Foods That Fight Cancer"
ISBN: 9781741750102
Australian price: $35.00
Australian publication date: Oct 2006
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

October 5, 2006.

Chapter 16 of "Foods That Fight Cancer" is seductively titled Chocolate: A Healthy Obsession.
I was gratified to discover that my obsession is now officially considered "healthy" -- but what do these scientists actually teach us about chocolate as a fighter of disease?
The information they present about the virtues of chocolate is nothing new: the authors have essentially collated and summarised the results from existing scientific studies. Indeed, I didn't find any information in this chapter that I hadn't already discovered on the internet (but then, I am obsessed with chocolate, and I do spend a lot of time reading on the subject). Although this book reveals no startling new evidence, the subject of chocolate as a health food is still fascinating, and may surprise many readers.
That chocolate could possibly be considered a health food might seem like great news for lots of sweet-toothed chocoholics. In fact, the sugar addicts shouldn't get their hopes up.
Béliveau and Gingras begin their examination of chocolate by waxing lyrical about its exotic Aztec history; including the cocoa-stoked emperor Montezuma's reputed ability to service 600 concubines. Eventually, the authors get around to explaining that only a very particular type of chocolate is potentially good for you: namely, chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids, and no milk solids.
Four pages into the Chocolate chapter, buried at the bottom of page 182, the authors present this crucial fact in an almost throw-away manner: the beneficial effect of cacao "disappears when chocolate is eaten together with milk, because of a dramatic change in polyphenol absorption". So, at best, milk chocolate confers negligible health benefits on its consumers.
Why is this fact so crucial? Well, the vast majority of chocolate eaten in Australia contains an abundance of milk. (Remember the Cadbury slogan: "a glass and a half in every 200 gram block"?). Furthermore, a substantial proportion of dark chocolate consumed in Australia is incorporated into dairy-rich drinks and baked goods, thereby negating its potential health benefits, too.
When scientists talk about chocolate being eaten "together with milk", they're referring to milk solids, which includes not only liquid milk, but also other dairy products such as milk powder, cream, and butter. So, sadly, you won't benefit healthwise from consuming creamy hot chocolate, chocolate milkshakes, chocolate ice cream, or buttery mud cakes - no matter how dark the chocolate in said treat is!

Returning to the authors' history lesson at the start of the Chocolate chapter: we are told that the word chocolate comes from the Aztec term xocoatl. According to Béliveau and Gingras, this term means "noise water", in reference to the noise of the whisk traditionally used to froth cocoa drinks. This claim is at odds with the widely-accepted and more logical explanation that xocoatl (more often spelled xocolatl) is a Nahuatl term meaning bitter water. If you've ever tried pure, 100% cocoa solids chocolate (like the Tava Bar) you'll know that it is indeed a powerfully bitter substance!
(Incidentally, "Nahuatl" is the name of a group of languages that is indigenous to Mexico. And the Aztecs were not the only people to speak Nahuatl -- the language is still spoken today by an estimated 1.5 million Mexicans. Words that the English language has derived from Nahuatl include not only chocolate, but also guacamole, avocado, tomato, and chilli).

Cocoa & health - the facts

If you're a competent researcher and you spent an hour Googling the health benefits of chocolate, you'd come up with all of the key ideas and basic information presented by Béliveau and Gingras in their chocolate chapter. For example:
  • While pure cocoa is high in saturated fat, the major type of saturated fat in cocoa is stearic acid, which is poorly absorbed by the body. Hence, cocoa neither contains cholesterol, nor does it adversely affect blood cholesterol when consumed.

  • Chocolate contains antioxidant polyphenols in abundance. In fact, gram for gram, a cocoa drink (without milk!) generates considerably more antioxidant activity than red wine or green tea - both of which are renowned for their high levels of health-promoting antioxidants.
    Indeed, the authors go so far as to say that the antioxidant activity possessed by dark chocolate is "truly sensational".

  • Chocolate has a bad reputation for being unhealthy, not because of its inherent characteristics, but because it typically has lots of sugar and milk solids added to it. Of course, chocolate doesn't have to be high in sugar, nor must it contain milk solids (the Tava Bar, which contains neither sugar nor milk solids, is a case in point).

  • Cocoa has been proven to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system, due to its exceptionally high levels of antioxidant activity.

But the big question about chocolate remains: can it effectively prevent, or even treat, cancer? The answer, according to the authors, seems to be "maybe". What they actually say is that "the phytochemical content in cacao [...] allows us to imagine that cacao may exhibit anti-cancer properties. Although studies on the capacity of the polyphenols in chocolate to prevent cancer are only beginning, the results are encouraging".
In summing up, Béliveau and Gingras recommend eating 40g of 70% cocoa solids chocolate each day, which seems like a pretty good idea to me, even if its health benefits aren't yet proven.

But what about pesticides as a cause of cancer?

One thing that surprised me about the authors' discussion of chocolate was their failure to mention pesticides commonly used on cocoa, which are strongly implicated in causing cancer.
Early on in the book (on page 20) the authors dismiss the idea that pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables might cause cancer. They argue that "no study has ever shown that [pesticides] might cause cancer in such small doses". This strikes me as a highly ironic use of logic, given that no study has ever proven that chocolate can prevent or fight cancer, either -- but that obviously didn't stop Béliveau and Gingras publishing an entire chapter suggesting (or, as they themselves put it, "imagining") that chocolate is one of the wondrous "Foods That Fight Cancer".
I would argue that pesticides in chocolate warrant close investigation, because cocoa is something of a special case.
Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) is a tropical crop which is grown almost exclusively in Third World countries. Cacao is highly susceptible to insect attack and fungal infection -- problems which are most easily combatted by using agricultural pesticides. Unfortunately for both chocolate consumers and cocoa growers, the major cocoa growing countries (particularly in West Africa) still rely heavily on dangerous agricultural chemicals, some of which are outlawed in Europe and the USA.
For example, lindane is one of the insecticides still used on a significant proportion of the world's cocoa trees. Lindane (also known as gamma-HCH) is an extremely toxic, persistent organochlorine. This means that lindane "persists" in the environment (including in food) for a long time before breaking down. Hence, it is quite common for chocolate to contain trace amounts of lindane.
Lindane has been linked to the development of many types of cancer. For instance, the Cancer Prevention Coalition states:
"Lindane has been shown to be a human carcinogen. Recent case control studies report high rates of childhood brain cancer treated with lindane shampoo. These findings are supported by several reports of six-fold increases non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in farmers exposed to lindane.
Evidence of carcinogenicity is confirmed by the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services."
We at Tava are extremely concerned about the negative effects of chemical usage in the cocoa industry -- not only for consumers of the end product, but also for the poor growers who come into regular contact with these chemicals, and for the long-term effects on the environment. We address this situation by buying raw cocoa beans from growers who either have organic certification, or whom we have visited, and whose crop-management methods we have personally investigated. As a result, the Tava Bar is made from pure cocoa, grown without harmful chemicals.
If you are concerned about cancer, I strongly urge you to research the known effects of agricultural chemicals on human health. If you'd like to learn a bit more about chemical usage in the cocoa industry, you could start by reading my article on the subject, called Chemical Cocoa.

From the back cover of "Foods That Fight Cancer":

Can some foods really help fight cancer?
Do all cancer-fighting foods work the same way?
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
"The incidence of cancer in Australia has reached alarming proportions and it's easy to feel powerless in the face of the frightening statistics. However, the latest research is showing convincingly that particular foods may significantly reduce the risk of cancer in healthy individuals and slow its progress in those already suffering from the disease. By knowing what these cancer-fighting foods are, we can take positive steps in the fight against cancer.

Leading cancer authority Richard Beliveau teams up with Denis Gingras in Foods that Fight Cancer to describe the science of food and which properties of particular foods are the active cancer-fighting elements. They clearly explain how different foods work to protect the body against different cancers and show which foods will be most effective. By understanding the science behind these therapeutic benefits, we come to realise not only why it is so critical to add these foods to our diet, but how easily it can be done."

"Foods That Fight Cancer" table of contents:

Cancer: A Formidable Enemy
1. The curse of cancer
2. What is cancer?
3. Fresh blood in the treatment of cancer: angiogenesis
4. The prevention of cancer through diet
5. Phytochemicals: an anti-cancer cocktail on your dinner plate!

Nutraceuticals: Foods That Fight Cancer
6. The cabbage family: a tumour's sworn enemy
7. Garlic and onions: keeping cancer away
8. Soy 101
9. An anti-cancer kitchen spice: introducing tumeric
10. Green tea: a cancer-fighting balm for the soul
11. A passion for berries
12. Omega-3: finally, fats that are good for you!
13. Tomatoes: the prostate's best friend
14. Citrus fruit: anti-cancer molecules with zest
15. In vino veritas
16. Chocolate: a healthy obsession

Nutratherapy: Day-to-Day
17. Adding supplements? Or adding problems?
18. On today's menu: fighting cancer!

The Cocoa Communiqué

Click here for much more information about The Tava Bar, including Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Extra dark cooking chocolate.
100% cocoa solids; no sugar.

Allergy Aware:
This chocolate is made in a strictly nut-free environment.