With the leftover chocolate of Valentine’s Day hanging around, we couldn’t think of a better time to look into the health hype around chocolate. By now, nearly every confectionary brand has released their line of high percentage cacao infused products and even the likes of cereals, milks and chocolate-covered dried fruits have gotten aboard this ‘healthy’ flavour trend. Accordingly, dark chocolate has made its way from being considered a treat to a sophisticated health food. But is dark chocolate REALLY that beneficial? To help understand dark chocolate and its role in health, we’ve taken a closer look at what’s inside the wrapper.
To some extent, the rumor that initially drove dark chocolate’s rise to fame as an antioxidant powerhouse is correct. This is especially the case when compared to other types of chocolate, such as milk or white, as antioxidants are found in less refined cocoa products with a higher cocoa percentage (>65%).1 Much research has been done on the effect of one of these compounds in particular, flavonoids, and its ability to improve cardiovascular health, cholesterol levels and stress management.
Flavonoids are antioxidants found in cocoa solids that help the body repair damaged cells. When it comes to cardiovascular health, damage is likely to manifest from blocked or constricted blood vessels which can lead to a lack of blood flow to organs like the heart (leading to heart attack) or brain (leading to stroke). Significant research, especially amongst older individuals ages 50+, suggests that cocoa may be involved in vasodilation (blood vessel widening) and in this way be cardio-protective.2 Research also suggests that flavonoids in dark cocoa products may be protective against the storage of excess visceral (around your organs) fat.3,4,5
The majority of fat in cocoa is in the form of either a monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic acid – this is the one highly concentrated in olive oil) or a saturated fatty acid (stearic acid) which does not appear to raise “bad cholesterol” (LDL) but seems to have a more neutral effect, neither raising nor lowering it.2,4,6 Therefore dark chocolate may not negatively influence blood cholesterol levels the way we once thought.
While many of us may be tempted by chocolate during times of stress, this is another area researchers have reviewed. Some studies have looked at the positive biochemical responses we generate in areas of our brain after consumption of dark chocolate. Much of this research suggests that the antioxidants in dark chocolate promote an anti-inflammatory effect within the central nervous system. Positive outcomes observed in these studies include increased blood flow throughout the body, which may help transport oxygen and nutrients to brain cells and remove accumulated waste products.1 Additionally, dark chocolate has been noted to cause a release in feel-good endorphins, which help to temporarily improve mood.1
It is important to note that much of the research on dark chocolate required frequent consumption
of dark chocolate by participants - beyond the amount usually recommended. While cocoa may have benefits, we still don’t have enough evidence to recommend consuming more chocolate in place of other foods we know to be beneficial for us. So what can we do with this information? Well, if you enjoy chocolate, but it’s mostly milk or white chocolate, consider gradually transitioning to darker varieties. Our taste preferences change over time, and gradually changing can lead to greater likelihood of enjoying dark chocolate in the end. While a little bit of dark chocolate here and there may not be enough to improve blood pressure, cholesterol, mental health, or prevent disease, we can probably include some on occasion without thinking we are doing something harmful to our health. Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – can certainly be part of a healthy and balanced diet, but eating it should be done for pleasure and in moderation rather than as a routine health elixir.
1 Vinson, J. A., & Motisi, M. J. (2015). Polyphenol antioxidants in commercial chocolate bars: Is the label accurate? Journal of Functional Foods, 12, 526-529.
2 Magrone, T., Russo, M. A., & Jirillo, E. (2017). Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications. Frontiers in Immunology, 8.
3 Farhat, G., Drummond, S., Fyfe, L., & Al-Dujaili, E. A. (2013). Dark Chocolate: An Obesity Paradox or a Culprit for Weight Gain? Phytotherapy Research, 28(6), 791-797.
4 Tokede, O. A., Gaziano, J. M., & Djoussé, L. (2011). Effects of cocoa products/dark chocolate on serum lipids: a meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 65(8), 879-886.
5 Matsui N, Ito R, Nishimura E, Yoshikawa M, Kato M, Kamei M et al. (2005). Ingested cocoa can prevent high-fat diet–induced obesity by regulating the expression of genes for fatty acid metabolism. Nutrition 21, 594–601.
6 Vinson, J. A., Proch, J., Bose, P., Muchler, S., Taffera, P., Shuta, D., . . . Agbor, G. A. (2006). Chocolate Is a Powerful ex Vivo and in Vivo Antioxidant, an Antiatherosclerotic Agent in an Animal Model, and a Significant Contributor to Antioxidants in the European and American Diets. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 54(21).