Chocolate (health benefits)
Chocolate: Guilty pleasure or healthy snack?
I keep reading about “healthy” chocolate. Can chocolate really offer health benefits?
If you have a sweet tooth, the news has been hard to miss:
A number of chocolate manufacturers claim their products can promote heart health, lowering blood pressure and aiding circulation by delivering a powerful dose of antioxidants that may help stave off damage caused by aging and the environment.
Claims for heart benefits are based on studies that have found some properties of chocolate have positive, measurable effects on the circulatory and cardiovascular systems.
Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, which are part of a class of plant-derived antioxidants called polyphenols shown to have heart-protective effects.
Fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine also contain flavonoids, but certain types of chocolate have higher antioxidant levels than these foods and beverages.
Although cocoa beans have substantial flavanoid levels, many chocolate products are highly processed, a procedure that often adds sugar and milk, lowering the flavonoid content of the finished bar or beverage.
The darker the chocolate, the higher its cocoa and flavonoid content.
White chocolate, a mix of cocoa fat, sugar, and flavorings, contains no flavonoids at all.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that ordinary plain dark chocolate is 43% cocoa, plain milk chocolate, 30%, and a typical candy bar, only 15%.
All chocolate is high in saturated fat, the less healthy type of fat that when consumed in more than very moderate amounts, can contribute to weight gain and other problems such as atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
A Dutch study found men who regularly consume cocoa products have lower blood pressure and are less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who abstain.
Studies also have shown flavonoids may help arteries stay flexible and some suggest chocolate has an aspirin-like action that helps prevent blood clots, both of which could prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Much of this research has been conducted with cocoa and chocolate with high levels of flavonoids — not the milk chocolate most often favored by Americans.
Most chocolate is cholesterol free, but milk chocolate can contain small amounts of cholesterol. Although the fat in chocolate is highly saturated, a third of it is in the form of stearic acid, which does not boost blood cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fatty acids.
Although milk chocolate may not raise your cholesterol, the milk may interfere with absorption of flavonoids, according to recent research in the scientific journal Nutrition and Metabolism.
And all chocolate is fairly high in calories — about 135 to 150 calories per ounce — and weight gain can cancel out any positive health effects provided by chocolate.
Some studies have asked participants to increase their daily chocolate consumption to as much as 3.5 ounces a day — about 500 calories.
Most of these studies — many funded by the chocolate industry — have been small and have not lasted longer than a few weeks.
It’s not really clear how much dark chocolate people would need to eat to reap health benefits, and long-term research is needed to clarify the impact of chocolate on cardiovascular health.
The bottom line:
Moderate amounts of dark chocolate may have some heart benefits, but many claims are unproven and much more research is needed before chocolate can take its place among true healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which also contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber not found in chocolate.
That said, replacing the regular sweet treat in your diet with the darkest chocolate you can find (look for a high cocoa content) won’t hurt you and may have some health benefits.