We know it probably has some health benefits, but recent headlines have made extraordinary claims. Nutritionist Fiona Hunter has the science update…
Can something that tastes as good as chocolate really be good for you?
Although there’s growing evidence to suggest that eating chocolate may have some health benefits, recent newspaper headlines that claim eating chocolate is ‘as good for your heart as jogging’ are misleading. The research that prompted this, and a barrage of similar headlines, towards the end of last year was based on one small study in mice. The study found mice given a phytochemical called epicatechin, which is found in dark chocolate, performed better on an endurance test due to changes in their muscle performance, similar to those obtained by regular exercise. But it’s impossible to conclude that chocolate offers the same health benefits as exercise.
The heart health connection
However, there have been other studies with humans, showing that eating chocolate may have a positive effect on health. In one study, researchers from the University of Cambridge amalgamated the results from seven existing studies that explored the effects of eating chocolate on heart health. The review revealed that people who ate chocolate had a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke compared with people who ate none. But all the studies differed in how they categorised ‘high’ and ‘low’ chocolate consumption, making it impossible to provide a quantity that’s beneficial to heart health.
Less is definitely more
Other studies show that dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure for healthy adults and people with hypertension. The effect is modest and relies on a small daily dose of dark chocolate. Nevertheless, lifestyle changes for lowering blood pressure should still focus on eating less salt, increasing intakes of potassium-rich foods such as fruit and veg, losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising.
Most researchers agree it’s important to remember chocolate is still high in calories and so can contribute to weight gain – and being overweight increases the risk of many of the diseases that small amounts of chocolate potentially help to protect against, such as high blood pressure and heart disease! So stick to good quality plain chocolate and enjoy it in small amounts of around 25g – three to four pieces or half a small bar – or use our suggestions in this article on 10 ways with dark chocolate.
It’s all about the flavonoids
Cocoa beans contain phytochemicals such as flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Studies show it’s these that may help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and lower raised blood pressure. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate, the higher the flavonoid content. This means plain chocolate contains about six times more than milk chocolate – while white chocolate contains hardly any. Plain chocolate also contains slightly less sugar (although it may contain more fat) than milk chocolate and, because the flavour is more intense, many people find a couple of squares are enough to satisfy a craving.