The Health Benefits Of Chocolate

What could be more pleasant than finding out that chocolate–one of the world’s most well-loved foods–offers health benefits that may improve cardiovascular function, ward of chronic disease and even extend lifespan? These claims appear to hold a grain of truth, but beware: Adding chocolate to your diet is not without drawbacks. Chocolate can play a role in a varied and healthy diet, but as with anything else, moderation is key.

What is Chocolate?

Chocolate originates with the beans of the cocoa plant, which are harvested, dried, crushed, and then sent through a series of processes and chemical treatments. The natural flavor of the bean, which is described as pungent or bitter, is tamed and sweetened during this process. Unfortunately, many of the beneficial chemicals that occur naturally in the cocoa plant (and the resulting benefits of chocolate) are neutralized or lost during all this alkalizing, fermenting and roasting. This is why darker chocolates are healthier than milk chocolates, which have been more highly processed and contain more added sugars.

Flavonoids and Flavenols in Chocolate

The cocoa plant contains many polyphenols–beneficial biological compounds found in plants–that help it ward off damage and recover from the cellular wear and tear of environmental toxins. What some of these chemicals do for the plant, they can also do for us. A category of polyphenols called flavonoids (also found in cranberries, onions and red wine), and a subcategory within that category called flavenols, are especially beneficial.

Flavenols are known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They may also lead to a rise in HDL or “good” cholesterol, which can strengthen artery walls and improve cardiovascular health.

But as chocolate is processed, flavenol levels drop. Flavenols were once believed to be most highly concentrated in dark chocolate. Health studies now suggest that the least-heavily processed chocolate, not necessarily the darkest, offers the most flavonoid benefits.

Chocolate Health Benefits

So what are these flavonoid benefits? Ongoing studies suggest that chocolate health benefits may include the following:

  • Improved circulation and reduced blood pressure
  • Increased levels of HDL cholesterol
  • Maintenance of flexibility in artery walls
  • Prevention of blood clots, which may ward off heart attacks and strokes.

The benefits of chocolate are more likely to result from chocolate that is minimally processed, contains a high percentage of pure cocoa powder, and is unadulterated by nougat, caramel, marshmallow fluff and sweeteners. The milk in milk chocolate is healthy, but it does contain miniscule amounts of cholesterol and may interfere with flavonoid absorption. None of these benefits are derived from white chocolate, which contains no flavonoids at all.

A few ounces of pure chocolate a day may not cause harm and may even improve health, but excess chocolate consumption can lead to weight gain, which negates all of these benefits.

Resources

Cleveland Clinic. (2010). The sweet truth about chocolate and your heart. Retrieved September 17, 2010, from http://my.clevelandclinicnutrition.org/heart/prevention//chocolate.aspx

UAB Medicine. (2010). Chocolate (health benefits). Retrieved September 17, 2010, from http://www.health.uab.edu/17646/