Chocolate: Health benefits, facts, and research

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Health benefits and risks of chocolate

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. Written by Joseph Nordqvist on July 17, 2018 Benefits Light vs. dark Risks and precautions

The next time you eat a piece of chocolate, you may not have to feel so guilty about it. Despite its bad reputation for causing weight gain, a number of health benefits may be associated with this delicious treat.

Chocolate is made from tropical Theobroma cacao tree seeds. Its earliest use dates back to the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica.

After the European discovery of the Americas, chocolate became very popular in the wider world, and its demand exploded.

Chocolate has since become a popular food product that millions enjoy every day, thanks to its unique, rich, and sweet taste.

But what effect does eating chocolate have on our health?

Benefits

Share on Pinterest Recent research suggests that chocolate may have some health benefits.

Chocolate receives a lot of bad press because of its high fat and sugar content. Its consumption has been associated with acne , obesity , high blood pressure , coronary artery disease, and diabetes.

However, according to a review of chocolate’s health effects published in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine , it’s not all bad news.

The authors point to the discovery that cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, contains biologically active phenolic compounds.

This has changed people’s views on chocolate, and it has stimulated research into how it might impact aging, and conditions such as oxidative stress , blood pressure regulation, and atherosclerosis .

Chocolate’s antioxidant potential may have a range of health benefits. The higher the cocoa content, as in dark chocolate, the more benefits there are. Dark chocolate may also contain less fat and sugar, but it is important to check the label.

Eating chocolate may have the following benefits:

lowering cholesterol levels preventing cognitive decline reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems

It is important to note that the possible health benefits mentioned below came from single studies. More research is needed to confirm that eating chocolate can really improve people’s health.

In addition, chocolate bars do not contain only cocoa. The benefits and risks of any other ingredients, such as sugar and fat, need to be considered.

1) Cholesterol

One study, published in The Journal of Nutrition , suggests that chocolate consumption might help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, also known as “bad cholesterol.”

The researchers set out to investigate whether chocolate bars containing plant sterols (PS) and cocoa flavanols (CF) have any effect on cholesterol levels.

The authors concluded: “Regular consumption of chocolate bars containing PS and CF, as part of a low-fat diet, may support cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and improving blood pressure.”

2) Cognitive function

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have suggested that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day could help keep the brain healthy and reduce memory decline in older people.

The researchers found that hot chocolate helped improve blood flow to parts of the brain where it was needed.

Lead author, Farzaneh A. Sorond, said:

As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Results of a lab experiment, published in 2014, indicated that a cocoa extract, called lavado, might reduce or prevent damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease . This extract could help slow symptoms such as cognitive decline.

Another study, published in 2016 in the journal Appetite , suggests eating chocolate at least once weekly could improve cognitive function.

3) Heart disease

Research published in The BMJ , suggests that consuming chocolate could help lower the risk of developing heart disease by one-third .

Based on their observations, the authors concluded that higher levels of chocolate consumption could be linked to a lower risk of cardiometabolic disorders.

They call for further experimental studies to confirm whether consuming chocolate is beneficial.

4) Stroke

Canadian scientists, in a study involving 44,489 individuals, found that people who ate one serving of chocolate were 22 percent less likely to experience a stroke than those who did not. Also, those who had about two ounces of chocolate a week were 46 percent less likely to die from a stroke.

A further study, published in the journal Heart in 2015, tracked the impact of diet on the long-term health of 25,000 men and women.

The findings suggested that eating up to 100 grams (g) of chocolate each day may be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

5) Fetal growth and development

Eating 30 g (about one ounce) of chocolate every day during pregnancy might benefit fetal growth and development, according to a study presented at the 2016 Pregnancy Meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Atlanta, GA.

6) Athletic performance

Share on Pinterest Chocolate may help athletes cover more distance while using less oxygen.

Findings published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggest that a little dark chocolate might boost oxygen availability during fitness training.

Researchers who studied cyclists doing time trials in the United Kingdom found that “After eating dark chocolate, the riders used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace and also covered more distance in a two-minute flat-out time trial.”

The scientists believe that the success of dark chocolate in this case is that it contains flavonols known as epicatechins, which enhance the release of nitric oxide in the body. Beetroot juice has a similar effect.

Light vs. dark chocolate

Manufacturers of light, or milk, chocolate, claim that their product is better for health because it contains milk, and milk provides protein and calcium . Supporters of dark chocolate point to the higher iron content and levels of antioxidants in their product.

How do the nutrients compare?

Here are some sample nutrient levels in light and dark chocolate,

Nutrient Light (100 g) Dark (100 g) Energy 531 kcal 556 kcal Protein 8.51 g 5.54 g Carbohydrate 58 g 60.49 g Fat 30.57 g 32.4 g Sugars 54 g 47.56 g Iron 0.91 mg 2.13 mg Phosphorus 206 mg 51 mg Potassium 438 mg 502 mg Sodium 101 mg 6 mg Calcium 251 mg 30 mg Cholesterol 24 mg 5 mg

The darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of cocoa, and so, in theory, the higher the level of antioxidants there will be in the bar.

However, nutrients vary widely in commercially available chocolate bars, depending on the brand and type you choose. It is best to check the label if you want to be sure of the nutrients.

Unsweetened chocolates and 100-percent cocoa products are available for purchase online, and at some grocery and health food stores.

Risks and precautions

Share on Pinterest Chocolate that is high in sugar can lead to tooth decay if eaten in excess.

Chocolate may have health benefits, but it can have some negative effects, too.

Weight gain : Some studies suggest that chocolate consumption is linked to lower body mass index ( BMI ) and central body fat. However, chocolate can have a high calorie count due to its sugar and fat content. Anyone who is trying to slim down or maintain their weight should limit their chocolate consumption and check the label of their favorite product.

Sugar content : The high sugar content of most chocolate can also be a cause of tooth decay.

Migraine risk : Some people may experience an increase in migraines when eating chocolate regularly due to cocoa’s tyramine, histamine, and phenylalanine content. However, research is mixed.

Bone health : There is some evidence that chocolate might cause poor bone structure and osteoporosis . The results of one study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , found that older women who consumed chocolate every day had lower bone density and strength.

Heavy metals : Some cocoa powders, chocolate bars, and cacao nibs may contain high levels of cadmium and lead, which are toxic to the kidneys, bones, and other body tissues.

In 2017, Consumer Lab tested 43 chocolate products and found that nearly all cocoa powders contained more than 0.3 mcg cadmium per serving, the maximum amount recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

All in all, eating chocolate can have both health benefits and risks. As ever, moderation is key.

Read the article in Spanish.

Last medically reviewed on July 17, 2018

Nutrition / Diet Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. Written by Joseph Nordqvist on July 17, 2018

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