Is Chocolate a Health Food?

Chocolate lovers rejoice: the sweet treat has some surprising health benefits, from boosting your brainpower to combating certain pregnancy complications and reducing heart attack risk. It might even offer some protection against cancer, some recent studies suggest. The ingredients credited with these health pluses are flavanols, antioxidant compounds also found in tea, wine, fruits and vegetables.

“We now have good science on chocolate, especially dark chocolate on blood pressure,” Dr. Luc Djoussé of Harvard Medical School said, in a National Institutes of Health report, “Claims About Cocoa,” published this month. His research team found an overall drop in blood pressure in people who eat more chocolate. “The effect was even stronger in people with high blood pressure.” Here’s a rundown on what scientists know about chocolate’s impact on health risks:

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  • Cardiovascular disease. Researchers first discovered that chocolate can enhance health from studies of the Kuna Indians of Panama’s San Blas islands, who rarely develop cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) or high blood pressure. Yet if they moved to Panama City and gave up their native ways, both disorders struck at typical rates, showing that it’s not their genes that were protecting them. Kuna who remain on the islands drink up to four cups a day of a home brew of flavanol-rich dried and ground cocoa beans. 
  • High blood pressure during pregnancy: A Yale study of 2,291 pregnant women found that those who ate more than five servings of chocolate a week reduced their risk of developing pre-eclampsia, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, by up to 40 percent, compared to women who ate less than one serving a week. The credit here goes to the chocolate byproduct theobromine.
  • Heart attack. Chocolate’s flavanols reduce the stickiness of platelets, cells that are key to blood clotting. This reduces risk for heart attack, since blood clots play a key role in choking off flow to coronary arteries during a heart attack. Chocolate’s flavanols also appear to increase levels of a protein (apolipoprotein A) that is a major component of HDL (good cholesterol), while lowering levels of apolipoprotein B, the main component of LDL (bad cholesterol)—beneficial changes that can reduce risk for clogged arteries and heart attacks.

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  • Stroke. A 2010 systematic review of three previous studies had mixed results, with two studies showing a 22 percent drop in stroke risk in people who had one serving of chocolate per week, and a 46 percent drop in stroke deaths in people who ate 50 grams (about 1.76 ounces) of chocolate a week, respectively. The third study found no link between eating chocolate and stroke. However, Johns Hopkins researchers have found that epicatechin, a flavanol in dark chocolate, may protect the brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals known to shield nerve cells from damage. The study looked at mice—not people--so more research is needed to see if it works in people and, if so, how much chocolate would do the trick.
  • Cancer: A cocoa compound called pentameric procyanidin may help protect against cancer by deactivating proteins that prompt cancer cells to continuously divide, a study at Lombard Comprehensive Cancer Center reported. Other researchers have looked at how chocolate consumption affects biological markers linked to cancer. “Some studies show a really remarkable modification of these markers,” commented cancer and diet expert Dr. Joseph Su, in the NIH report. However, findings aren’t consistent across studies and don’t provide conclusive proof that eating chocolate will prevent cancer.  Stay tuned: More research is needed.
  • Brain Power: A study from England’s University of Reading found that 30 men and women ages 18 to 25 performed better on tests of thinking skills and vision a few hours after eating a dark chocolate bar. The researchers credited flavanols and suggested that the compounds worked by increasing blood flow to both the brain and the retina of the eye.

Chocolate’s Downside 

We can’t afford to get too enthusiastic about chocolate as a health food: Eating too much of this high-calorie treat could lead to weight gain—sabotaging the health benefits. But it couldn’t hurt to ration out a square or two a few times a week. Integrative medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, MD, considers dark chocolate a healthy snack in moderation. Here are some chocolate do’s and don’ts:

  • Choose dark chocolate that is 70 percent cocoa.
  • Don’t bother with milk chocolate or white chocolate for health benefits - they won’t give you the flavanols you need.
  • Don’t depend on cocoa for flavanols - most products are too processed to provide any. Your best bet is cocoa that hasn’t undergone “Dutch processing,” which treats cocoa with an alkali to neutralize its acidity.

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