Is chocolate good for health?

Is chocolate good for your health?

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

The taste surely plays a role in the popularity of chocolate, but you may have also heard that this delicious delicacy 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 will depend on how much cocoa it actually contains and what other ingredients it has.”

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

Milk chocolate typically contains around 20 percent cocoa, Mozaffarian said, although the cocoa content can vary. (The US Food and Drug Administration requires milk chocolate to contain at least 10 percent cocoa, but some milk chocolate bars contain as much as 50 percent or more.) Dark chocolate typically contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, but it can also vary widely, so Mozaffarian advises reading product labels carefully. For potential health benefits, Mozaffarian recommends choosing dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cacao.

Many small, short-term clinical trials in humans have found that dark chocolate or standardized cocoa beverages or supplements 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 systematic review published in February in the journal 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 10 grams was associated with a six percent reduction in the overall risk of cardiovascular disease.

However, these types of estimates are based on observational studies, which have important limitations, reported 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 can’t prove that chocolate is beneficial: People who eat more chocolate may be different in other ways that affect their health, Manson said.

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. Also, 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 a 27 percent 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.

Importantly, the COSMOS trial did not give participants chocolate, but concentrated cocoa extract capsules produced by the chocolate-maker Mars, which also partially funded 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, Manson said, noting that during chocolate processing a high proportion of flavanols.

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

Much of the research, including his own, 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, he added. Research suggests that the results of studies sponsored by the food industry, including those involving chocolate, are more likely to be favorable to the companies that fund them, although Manson said Mars was not involved in the design or analysis of the trial. COSMOS.

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

Alice Callahan is a health and science journalist in Oregon and a frequent contributor to The New York Times.