Chocolate is one of the most popular food types in the world, and yet, throughout the years, it has gotten a lot of bad press with its consumption associated with everything from high blood pressure to tooth decay. But lets talk about the positives – arrived at with GOOD science, and giving us hope that one of our favorite “food groups” can help us live longer, and happier!
What has accounted for the bad press about chocolate?
In 1893 Milton Hershey revolutionized the process of making milk chocolate, and introduced mass production techniques that resulted in chocolate’s popularity as a sweet treat. Over the years, as more nuts, caramel and other components have been added to chocolate, the calorie count and sugar content has skyrocketed. So the large amount of sugars in most commercial chocolates can cause gum disease, tooth decay – and yes, excessive consumption of high caloric candy can lead to obesity, a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
So what has changed our understanding of chocolate today?
Cocoa beans, the base ingredient of chocolates, are believed to contain more than 300 compounds that are beneficial to health. High on the list are plant nutrients called flavanoids and flavanols – called anthocyanidins and epicatechins. These antioxidants protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage – it appears that we also benefit from their antioxidant power. Antioxidants repair DNA and capture free radicals in the body that are responsible for accelerating aging, cancer, and a host of other disease states.
Cocoa beans also contain dopamine, phenylethlamine and serotonin - compounds known to enhance a positive mood and promote feelings of well being.
So lets get to the benefits:
Cholesterol first! Low Density Lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as our “bad” cholesterol. When there is increased oxidation in the body, free radicals can cause LDL to deposit on artery walls and develop plaques. Over time these plaques can cut off blood supply to the heart, arteries to other organs, and contribute to stroke risk.
A well conducted study published in the journal Nutrition demonstrated that regular consumption of cocoa flavanol-containing chocolate bars significantly lowered serum total and LOL levels over a four week trial. Harvard researchers analyzed 24 studies involving over 1000 people and found some evidence for a small decrease in LDL and a significant increase in HDL cholesterol.
Blood pressure and heart disease!
Research published in the British Medical Journal has suggested that consuming chocolate could help lower the risk of developing heart disease by one third. Canadian scientists studied over 44,000 people and that that those who ate chocolate were 22% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who didn’t. And for those who DID eat chocolate, but had a stroke, they were 46% less likely to die as a result.
Studies at the University of California San Diego in 2012 found that dark chocolate may benefit patients with advanced heart failure by enhancing the structure of mitochondria – the cell’s powerhouse – and another study showed that blood pressure was lowered.
And a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association added evidence that eating dark chocolate helps those with peripheral artery disease to walk further.
Memory and Cognition!
In 2013 a study by researchers from Harvard Medical School claimed that drinking two cups of hot chocolate each day may stave off memory decline in older age. Thinking and memory tests were done at the start of the study, and the elderly who participated and drank the chocolate performed better than the control group. Using ultrasound before and after the study, researchers were also able to directly visualize increased blood flow to the brain of those who drank the chocolate – this is called neurovascular coupling – the blood flow response to brain activity. It was actually IMPROVED in those who drank the chocolate.
In a further study published in 2014 a cocoa extract called lavado, may reduce or block damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease – an exciting development that is provoking more study in this area.
Eating chocolate during pregnancy may benefit fetal growth and development when pregnant moms eat 30g of chocolate a day – this study just published in 2016.
Any other studies?
One that got a lot of press was a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The investigator demonstrated a surprisingly strong correlation between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million people in 23 countries. Although it is VERY tempting to assume that chocolate is responsible for superior intellect, let’s step back and remember that there are other factors in play here – for example…thinking broadly – since chocolate is a luxury in most societies, we must assume that the per capita incomes are higher in the nations on the right. And with higher income comes the liklihood of a more obtainable higher education, and more opportunities. Those might be more important factors in why more Laureates come from those areas of the world. There was a lot of press about this study – especially because it was published in such a prestigious journal – and much criticism. But in concluding, it allows me to caution our audience that not every study’s conclusion is the truth. Well conducted studies are hard to find – and many studies that hit the press and the internet aren’t.
So what SHOULD we eat?
It’s reasonable to assume that a diet rich in plant flavanoids confers benefit to humans – but processing of even dark chocolate can wash out at least 80% of the original flavonoids from the cocoa beans. So here’s what to look for:
Choose dark chocolate with the lowest amount of sugar and the highest amount of cocoa. Choose brands that are at least 70% cocoa, and if there is an indication that Flavanoids/Flavanols are added, grab those. If brands claim to have minimal processing, those are good too.
Eat one small square a day (30 gram), and remember to enrich your life with walking, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. Stimulate your brain with lots of reading and learning.