It sounds too good to be true. Could something that we naturally love, even find decadent, actually be good for us? Here are some of the possible health benefits of chocolate, along with some of the risks.
The benefits of chocolate
The possible health benefits of chocolate stem from the antioxidant flavonoids. Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, and cacao is extraordinarily rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid phytochemical (from Wikipedia).
1. Protection from environmental toxins. Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They can be found in a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this "antioxidant" power (from my.clevelandclinic.org).
2. Helps vascular health. Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot (from my.clevelandclinic.org). These plant chemicals aren’t only found in chocolate. In fact, a wide variety of foods and beverages are rich in flavonols. These include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.
The idea that chocolate may be good for vascular health is supported by studies of the Kuna Indians, who live on islands off the coast of Panama. They have a low risk of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure given their weight and salt intake. Researchers realized that genes weren’t protecting them, because those who moved away from the Kuna islands developed high blood pressure and heart disease at typical rates. Something in their island environment must have kept their blood pressure from rising. “What was particularly striking about their environment was the amount of cocoa they consume, which was easily 10 times more than most of us would get in a typical day,” says Dr. Brent M. Egan, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina who studies the effect of chocolate on blood pressure (from newsinhealth.nih.gov).
Other observational studies show a drastic reduction in heart disease risk for the people who consume the most chocolate (from authoritynutrition.com).
5. The darker the better. The color of chocolate depends partly on the amount of cocoa solids and added ingredients, such as milk. In general, though, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa solids it contains. Researchers think the solids are where the healthy compounds are. White chocolate, in contrast, contains no cocoa solids at all (from newsinhealth.nih.gov).
6. Cancer prevention. Chocolate contains high levels of compounds thought to help prevent cancer, too. But Dr. Joseph Su, an NIH expert in diet and cancer, says that direct evidence here is similarly hard to come by. Since cancer can take many years to develop, it’s difficult to prove whether eating chocolate can affect disease. Instead, researchers look to see if factors linked to cancer change when chocolate is consumed. “Right now, some studies show really a remarkable modification of those markers,” Su says. But the evidence that chocolate can reduce cancer or death rates in people is still weak. “There are a few studies that show some effect,” Su says, “but the findings so far are not consistent.” (from newsinhealth.nih.gov)
7. Nutrition. If you buy quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, then it is actually quite nutritious. A 100 gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains:
11 grams of fiber.
Of course, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) is a fairly large amount and not something you should be consuming daily. All these nutrients also come with 600 calories and moderate amounts of sugar (from authoritynutrition.com).
The downside of chocolate
1. The health benefits of flavanoids not officially recogized. At the current time, neither the FDA nor the EFSA has approved any health claim for flavonoids, or approved any flavonoids as pharmaceutical drugs (from Wikipedia).
2. Straight chocolate is bitter. Companies add things like milk, cocoa butter, sugar, soy lecithin, and artificial flavors to make it more palatable. Those ingredients aren't so healthy, so it's good to look for chocolate that is dark, has a high percentage of cocoa, and not too many additives. My favorite balance is somewhere around 60%. Beyond that the bitterness overpowers the sweetness for me.
3. White chocolate has no health benefits.
4. Don't overdue it. Eat a little chocolate now and then, but you need to look at the label and ensure that the calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates all fit within your food plan (see my other blog post about that).
As for me, I enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate every day, and at least for now I am content to think that it is contributing to my overall health.