Chocolate and Your Health

New research confirms the too-good-to-be-true fact that chocolate is good for us.

| January/February 2013

  • Beneficial compounds called flavanoids in chocolate provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other health benefits.
    Photo By Loupe Images

Have you heard that chocolate is good for you, but doubted that such good news could possibly be true? Well, prepare to be delighted. Two recent meta-analyses (large-scale studies that review the results of multiple smaller studies)—one published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2011 and another in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews (CDSR) in 2012—confirm some news many of us will gladly get behind: Chocolate is good for us. Specifically, the studies confirm chocolate’s ability to fend off heart disease, a leading cause of death.

Chocolate and Your Health

The World Health Organization reports that in the next 17 years, nearly 24 million people worldwide will die from cardiovascular disorders including atherosclerosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and other heart problems. Diet is one of the key factors in preventing this enormous burden on the global population. Chocolate alone will not save us of course, but there is enough evidence to be excited about its role in prevention.

Chocolate contains beneficial compounds called flavanols, which are responsible for its strong flavor, that the BMJ study’s authors report have many beneficial effects. They are antioxidant, antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory, plus the flavanols work against cholesterol plaque buildup in the arteries and blood clot blockages. These beneficial compounds also influence insulin sensitivity, the function of blood vessels and the activation of nitric oxide, a substance that helps relax blood vessels for easier blood flow.

Plants produce flavonoids to protect themselves from toxins. When we eat these plants, we ingest those antioxidant benefits. Antioxidants help our bodies resist damage from oxidation, which can cause a host of problems such as the buildup of LDL, or bad cholesterol. In addition to improving blood flow and blood pressure, chocolate’s flavanols can also make platelets less sticky.

In reviewing the body of literature, the BMJ study authors found that people who consumed the most cacao had a 37 percent reduction in overall cardiovascular disease, a 31 percent reduction in diabetes and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with people who ate the least. The CDSR analysis found evidence in 20 different studies that cacao consumption can moderately reduce blood pressure.

Get the Good Stuff

Of course, the health benefits of chocolate are dependent on the quality of the source. The more flavanols a chocolate product contains, the better it will be for your heart and your blood pressure. Flavanols are contained in cacao, which is found in higher proportions in dark chocolate that has not been highly processed. The more processed a chocolate product is, the fewer flavanols it likely contains. Dutch-processed cocoa, for example, has been treated with an alkali specifically to reduce the acidic flavor, which reduces the potency of the flavanols. Also keep in mind that many candies that contain chocolate also contain high levels of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that are certainly not good for us, so whenever possible, choose pure dark chocolate, minimally processed with high-quality ingredients.

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