We all hear about super foods these days: turmeric, blueberries, cinnamon and, of course, chocolate. A brief online review of the health benefits of chocolate reveals numerous articles touting the health benefits of chocolate – especially dark chocolate. But is it really true? What does the scientific literature say about the benefits of chocolate? What do the nutritionists say? What I found was not what I expected.
Many Scientific Studies Support the Theory That Eating Chocolate Benefits Human Health.
The most recent scientific study on the health benefits of chocolate, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology1, concluded that eating chocolate at least once per week is linked with a reduced risk of heart disease. The researchers conducted a combined analysis of studies from the past 50 years examining the relationship between chocolate consumption and coronary artery disease. The research included six studies with a total of 336,287 participants who reported their chocolate consumption. Compared with consuming chocolate less than once a week, eating chocolate more than once per week was associated with an 8% decreased risk of coronary artery disease.
This study raised more questions than it answered. What type of chocolate was consumed? Did it make any difference if it was milk, white or dark chocolate? How large a portion of chocolate was consumed? Would eating chocolate three, four or five times a week result in an even greater benefit? What is clear is that eating too much chocolate can have a negative health effect. The study’s principal author, Dr. Chayakrit Krittanawong of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, noted, “Moderate amounts of chocolate seem to protect the coronary arteries, but it is likely that large quantities do not. The calories, sugar, milk and fat in commercially available products need to be considered, particularly in diabetics and obese people.”
In 2014, an 8-week clinical trial among elderly participants with no cognitive problems found that high doses of cocoa flavanols improved aspects of cognitive function, including cognitive processing and verbal fluency.2 Researchers also found that high flavanol doses significantly improved insulin resistance, blood pressure and lipid peroxidation. However, the highest dose had almost 1,000 mg of cocoa flavanols, which was served in a chocolate drink which was made by the chocolate company, Mars. Compare that 1,000 mg flavanol chocolate drink to about 50 mg of flavanols in an average dark chocolate bar or 7 mg in a milk chocolate bar. One can question the validity of the study, given that few people are going to eat 20 dark chocolate bars a day in order to consume 1,000 mg of cocoa flavanols..
The website brewsmartly.com, in an article examining the benefits and drawbacks of dark chocolate, noted 10 surprising health benefits of dark chocolate backed by science, including: (1) high nutritional value; (2) a powerful source of antioxidants; (3) may improve heart health; (4) improves brain function and immunity; (5) lowers risk of stroke; (6) helps people with diabetes; (7) lowers blood pressure; (8) promotes weight loss; (9) protects the skin from harmful UV rays and (10) promotes good gut health.3
Could the Health Risks Associated with Chocolate Exceed the Benefits?
Milk chocolate and dark chocolate have health risks associated with higher caffeine content, being a possible trigger of migraine headaches, increased risk of kidney stones and higher amounts of saturated fat and sugar (this is especially true for milk chocolate).3
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Steven Petrow examined the health benefits of chocolate and interviewed some of the nation’s leading nutritionists,4 including Marion Nestle, professor of food and nutrition studies at New York University, who has extensively studied the chocolate industry. Nestle explained that the flavanols in chocolate may have potential benefits. Flavanols are abundant in cocoa beans, which are used to make chocolate. However, the amount of flavanols in a chocolate bar is not nearly enough to affect one’s health. She noted, “You’d have to eat an awful lot of chocolate to make a difference.”
Dr. Nestle pointed out that if you eat more chocolate to increase your flavanol intake, you are consuming a lot more calories and fat – which is bad for your health. Excessive consumption of chocolate has the probable side effects of “weight gain, a risk factor for hypertension, diabetes and dyslipid anemia, which increases the chance of clogged arteries and heart attacks, stroke and other circulatory problems, especially in smokers.”
Petrow went on to point out that the large chocolate makers have long funded studies seeking to determine the health benefits of chocolate. A 2018 VOX report on more than 100 Mars Corporation funded studies found overwhelmingly glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate – promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease. Dr. Nestle noted, “I’m not impressed by the research that shows this [when] it is industry funded. It’s very hard to take seriously.”
So What’s a Chocolate Lover to Do?
I, as a chocolate lover, have never eaten chocolate because it is a superfood or for its health benefits. I eat chocolate for the taste. I am always looking to find that chocolate taste explosion. It could be a dark chocolate and a dark beer pairing or a chocolate and cheese pairing or, one of my favorites, an Iced Hot Chocolate from Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco.
The best advice in view of the amount of flavanols you would need to ingest to make a health difference is everything in moderation. Enjoy your chocolate, but no bingeing allowed. But then again, maybe bingeing is allowed occasionally, like in the Neuhaus Outlet Store in Brussels, Belgium. But that story is for another day.
1 Krittanawong C, Narasimhan B, Wang Z, et. al. Association Between Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Coronary Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Eur. J. Rev. Cardiol, D01: 10.1177/ 2047 48732 0936787.
2 Mastroaicovo D, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi D, et. al. Cocoa Flavanol Consumption Improves Cognitive Function, Blood Pressure Control, and Metabolic Profile in Elderly Subjects: The Cocoa, Cognition and Aging (COCOA) Study – A Randomized Controlled Trial, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 101, Issue 3, March 2015, Pages 538-548. D01: 10.3945/ ajcn.114.092189.
3 Holcomb W, Research-Backed Health Benefits of and Drawbacks of Dark Chocolate.
4 Petrow S, “Is Chocolate Healthy? Alas, the Answer Isn’t Sweet.”, The Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2019.