The Health Benefits of Chocolate
Chocolate is one of the most popular snack foods around the world. Most people think of chocolate as a sinful treat or candy, yet chocolate was revered for its health benefits in Aztec and Mayan cultures. While most people may not realize it, chocolate can easily be considered an herbal product, deriving from cacao beans.
So what are the health benefits of chocolate?
Chocolate may help improve:
- Heart disease
- Blood sugar and diabetes
- Brain function
- Antioxidant levels and anti-inflammatory pathways
A recent meta-analysis looked at the effects of chocolate on heart disease and stroke. They concluded that consuming three one-ounce servings a week of chocolate reduced risk of heart disease by 9%. That reduction increased slightly with seven servings a week to 11%. For stroke they saw a 15% reduction with three servings a week and a 17% reduction with seven servings (Yuan 2017). Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the United States, so even a 9% reduction in risk would make a significant impact.
Another review looked at blood pressure and chocolate consumption. They found a significant drop of 4 points in the top blood pressure number of hypertensive individuals with regular chocolate consumption (Ried 2017). It’s worth keeping in mind that blood sugar and blood pressure are strongly correlated (Filipovsky 1996), so consuming chocolate with lower sugar content may provide additional benefits.
Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Blood sugar problems are complex, but eating large amounts of added sugar can worsen blood sugar problems (Mela 2018). You would think that eating chocolate would be a bad idea for keeping blood sugar under control and preventing diabetes. However, the research shows an interesting correlation; two servings of chocolate a week reduced the risk of diabetes by 25%. With increasing servings of chocolate, the benefits started to decrease, possibly due to increased sugar consumption (Yuan 2017).
Considering the toll of diabetes in this country, reducing the risk of developing diabetes by 25% is impressive. The incidence of diabetes is expected to reach almost 600 million individuals throughout the world by 2035 (Forouhi 2014).
One of the more interesting findings is that chocolate increases blood flow to the brain (Francis 2006). The study used a single dose of cocoa and assessed the effects through imaging techniques. They concluded that the increased blood flow seen with chocolate might help prevent dementia and stroke.
A separate study looked at chocolate consumption and cognitive decline. Chocolate consumption was associated with a 41% reduction in cognitive decline, an early indicator of dementia (Moreira 2016). The results were only present in people that didn’t consume more than 75 mg of caffeine per day, equivalent to about one cup of coffee. Caffeine is also known to have potential protective effects for dementia. In the study, people already consuming coffee didn’t appear to get additional protection with added chocolate (Eskelinin 2010).
Overall, the research appears to suggest that chocolate may have neuroprotective properties (Sokolov 2013). However, more research is obviously necessary to confirm the extent of the effects.
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Effects
In general, chocolate appears to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Chocolate is rich in polyphenol compounds that act as antioxidants. However, different types of chocolate and processing techniques can lead to different levels of polyphenols (Urbanski 2019). In the referenced study, it’s interesting to note that Columbian beans had the highest levels of polyphenols and Venezuelan had the lowest, although levels could easily vary from year to year.
Both the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of chocolate are thought to be the reason for heart disease benefits (Natsume 2018). While polyphenols in general appear to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, human trials attempting to measure changes in inflammation with chocolate consumption have shown modest results at best (Ellinger 2016). Inflammation and immune function are complex and it’s likely we need more research to fully understand how chocolate affects human health.
Types of Chocolate with the Most Benefits
The strongest benefits from chocolate likely come from the darkest varieties and cocoa powder (Magrone 2017). Limiting sugar consumption with chocolate will also likely increase benefits. However, many of the large research studies cited above only looked at general chocolate consumption and didn’t differentiate among types. Reasonable consumption of most kinds of chocolate may yield at least some benefits.
Child Slave Labor in Chocolate Production
Another issue that needs to be addressed with chocolate is child slave labor. A large portion of chocolate is grown in Africa in countries with extremely lax labor standards. Unfortunately, this has resulted in African chocolate crops being grown and processed by child slave labor. Buying organic and fair-trade varieties of chocolate are typically free of child labor and are a better choice to try and prioritize away from child labor. You can find lists online of companies and their efforts to eliminate the use of child labor in their products (Green America 2020).
Chocolate is a comfort food for many of us around the world. It’s genuinely gratifying to know that you can consume reasonable amounts of chocolate and expect at least modest health benefits. Chocolate is something I enjoy on a regular basis and it’s fun to be able to recommend it to patients as an occasional treat as well.