Chocolate: science answers this question is it really good for health?

Chocolate has a long and illustrious reputation. Crafted from cocoa, which is derived from the beans of the cacao tree (whose scientific name translates as “food of the gods”), was used by several of the first Mesoamerican cultures as food, medicine, ritual offering and perhaps even as currency. It is no less valuable in modern times; The global chocolate market grew nearly 20% between 2016 and 2021, with an estimated $980 billion in revenue in 2021, according to market research firm Statista.

Flavor surely plays a role in chocolate’s popularity, but you may have also heard that this delicious delicacy It is good for your health. What does science say about this perception?

“Clearly, cocoa is good for your health,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor of nutrition at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “That he chocolate whether or not it’s good for you It will depend on how much cocoa it actually contains and what other ingredients it has.”

The cocoa beans are packed with fiber and “loads of phytonutrients,” Mozaffarian reported, referring to natural chemicals found in plants. Cocoa is believed to contain about 380 chemicals, among them a large class of compounds called flavanols, which have generated great research interest for their potential health benefits. However, there’s not much clarity on how many flavanols and other phytonutrients are required for best health or whether your favorite candy bar contains enough of those components to do so. Furthermore, experts have differing opinions on this point.

Cacao was used by several early Mesoamerican cultures as a food, medicine, ritual offering, and perhaps even currency.

“Milk chocolate typically contains around 20% cocoa,” Mozaffarian said, although cocoa content can vary. Not a minor fact is that the United States Food and Drug Administration requires that milk chocolate contain at least ten percent cocoa, but some milk chocolate bars contain up to 50% or more.

Dark chocolate generally contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, but it can also vary a lot, which is why Mozaffarian advises to read the product labels carefully. For potential health benefits, Mozaffarian recommends choosing dark chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa.

many clinical trials small and short-term studies in humans have found that dark chocolate or standardized cocoa supplements or beverages can modestly lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol levels and blood vessel health in adults. “In addition, some studies based on longer-term observation have found that those who eat more cocoa may have a lower risk of certain cardiovascular diseases,” Mozaffarian said.

In a systemic review published in February in JAMA Network Open, Mozaffarian and colleagues examined how certain foods and nutrients were associated with heart health problems. They found “probable or convincing evidence” that eating chocolate was linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. They calculated that a daily intake of just ten grams was associated with a six percent reduction in the overall risk of cardiovascular disease.

In adults, dark chocolate or cocoa supplements or drinks can lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels, and improve blood vessel health
In adults, dark chocolate or cocoa supplements or drinks can lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels, and improve blood vessel healthKindness Comprehensive Nutrition

“However, these types of estimates are based on observational studies, which have important limitations,” said Joann Manson, director of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. These studies can only identify correlations between eating chocolate and health; they cannot prove that chocolate generates benefits: “People who eat more chocolate could be different in other ways that affect their health,” Manson stated.

Findings from observational studies have also been inconsistent. “Some have found no benefit and others have found that those who eat chocolate regularly or more often are more likely to gain weight,” Manson said. These types of studies also do not usually consider the different types of chocolate, which can vary in terms of their cocoa content. Besides, the amount of fat, sugar, and calories could negate any health benefits that come from cocoa.

To address some of these shortcomings, Manson and colleagues conducted a large randomized trial of more than 21,000 older adults in the United States. Half of the participants were given a cocoa extract supplement containing 500 milligrams of cocoa flavanols, and the other half were given a placebo. The results of the study, called the Cosmos trial, were published in June in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

After following the participants for 3.6 years, the researchers found that while the cocoa supplement group was not statistically less likely to experience cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes, compared to the placebo group, it was had one 27% reduction in cardiovascular deaths. Manson called these results “promising signs for heart protection,” though he stressed that another trial is needed to confirm the findings before translating them into recommendations for cocoa flavonoid intake.

Dark chocolate usually contains more cocoa than milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate usually contains more cocoa than milk chocolate.Shutterstock

It is important to note that the Cosmos trial did not give participants chocolate, but concentrated capsules of cocoa extract produced by the chocolate manufacturer Mars, which also partially financed the study. “To get the same amount of bioactive cocoa flavanols from chocolate, a person would have to eat about 4,000 calories of milk chocolate or 600 calories of dark chocolate a day,” said Manson, who noted that a large proportion of flavanols can be destroyed during chocolate processing.

Chocolate is “a wonderful delicacy, but when it comes to perceiving it as a healthy food, I think It has its limitations.”Manson stated.

“Much of the research, including yours, into the potential health benefits of chocolate and cocoa has been funded by chocolate companies like Mars,” Manson said. “These trials are expensive, and government funding for nutrition studies in general is limited,” she added. Research suggests that the results of studies sponsored by the food industry, including those on chocolate, have more likely to be favorable to the companies that finance them, though Manson said Mars was not involved in the design or analysis of the trial.

For his part, Mozaffarian is convinced by existing research that dark chocolate containing a 70% or more cocoa is probably beneficial for heart health, even if it contains fewer flavanols than those tested in the trial. “Eating a small amount of dark chocolate each day is probably very good for us, and it will make us happy, because it has a very rich flavor”, said.

Mozaffarian said he receives no funding from the chocolate industry, but admitted to a conflict of interest when it comes to this particular food. “My conflict is that I love dark chocolate,” he said.

By Alice Callahan