Who said chocolate is a guilty pleasure?



Photo credit: Lee McCoy, used with permission under Creative Commons license.

By Monya De, MD, MPH and pH health care professionals

The world seemed to rejoice when dark chocolate was pronounced a “healthy” food. Finally, after decades of every edible pleasure being slapped with a “DO NOT EAT” sign, we have something that’s delicious, luxurious, has a little caffeine and might prevent heart attacks.

By my last count, there are 225 medical research studies that have been done on dark chocolate (definitely my choice of thesis topic, were I to become a professor).  Some of them reveal quite delightful insights. Let’s take a tour of the research.

If you’re young and healthy, dark chocolate will pump you up. That was the conclusion of Portuguese researchers published in a cardiology journal in May. They compared markers of blood vessel function in healthy volunteers who did and did not eat dark chocolate every day. Just about every measurement they took improved with the chocolate. 

In this and several other prior studies, arteries were more flexible, stretching more easily to accommodate blood flow. This is especially impressive, considering that the chocolate is overcoming the caffeine it contains that is working to constrict the arteries. You definitely want flexible arteries because stiff ones are a risk factor for heart attacks.

In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Swiss researchers compared stress responses in people who received placebo or “fake” chocolate to those who got real chocolate. Specifically, they checked their stress hormone levels after various stressful activities such as doing math in front of an audience and a fake job interview (not to mention the venous catheter jammed into the subjects’ arms for blood sampling).

The result? Chocolate actually brought down the stress hormone response. Stress hormones are a notorious enemy (see: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by famed Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky) — they contribute to weight gain and diabetes, and may be linked to cancers and heart disease.

So what is it about chocolate? Researchers point to “the high content of polyphenolic flavonoids” in dark chocolate, as illustrated in an Australian study confirming that mood was improved more significantly in patients who regularly drank hot cocoa that was double-spiked with these antioxidants.

Meanwhile, London scientists found that eating mega-antioxidant chocolate actually doubled the time that study subjects could spend in the sun without burning (note that this chocolate is probably not commercially available, so don’t throw away your sunscreen just yet).

When you’re at the grocery store, hemming and hawing over which bar to buy, remember that most research studies use chocolate that is truly dark, or 75% cocoa. It’s bitter at first if you’re not used to it, but you will get used to the taste very quickly.  Also, note that you shouldn’t let it sit too long; the white “bloom” on old chocolate isn’t harmful, but does represent a drop in antioxidants.

Further, many studies used a chocolate drink that didn’t have any of the milk fat in chocolate bars. Animal fats and sugar will offset some of the health benefits, so try to look for the purest, least sweetened chocolate you can tolerate.

The science is pretty convincing; the slightly bitter stuff can really impact your health! So next time you are hankering for a chocolate indulgence, go for real dark chocolate to reap the health benefits and naturally delicious taste.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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