Helpful explanation of what works – and what doesn’t – amongst all those chocolate and cocoa claims! A good reminder that it’s never just one thing that does the trick! -
The past decade has seen many studies into the health effects of chocolate. “We have good science on chocolate, especially about dark chocolate on blood pressure,” says Dr. Luc Djoussé of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His research team found an overall drop in blood pressure among people who eat more chocolate. “The results suggest that chocolate may, in fact, lower blood pressure,” Djoussé says. “This effect was even stronger among people with high blood pressure to begin with.”
Laboratory studies have uncovered several mechanisms that might explain chocolate’s heart-healthy benefits. However, it’s hard to prove whether the chocolate that most Americans eat actually has those effects in the human body. Controlling how much chocolate people eat and tracking them for long periods of time is not an easy task.
“People usually eat food in a pattern. A chocolate lover would eat chocolate with something else,” Djoussé explains. “It could be not so much the chocolate by itself, but chocolate in conjunction with, let’s say, whole grain or exercise or not smoking—the pattern of the lifestyle habit in general. It’s really hard to separate the effects of individual components.”
Chocolate contains high levels of compounds thought to help prevent cancer, too. But Dr. Joseph Su, an NIH expert in diet and cancer, says that direct evidence here is similarly hard to come by. Since cancer can take many years to develop, it’s difficult to prove whether eating chocolate can affect disease. Instead, researchers look to see if factors linked to cancer change when chocolate is consumed.
“Right now, some studies show really a remarkable modification of those markers,” Su says. But the evidence that chocolate can reduce cancer or death rates in people is still weak. “There are a few studies that show some effect,” Su says, “but the findings so far are not consistent.”
Some research also suggests that chocolate might help prevent diabetes. However, the challenges in proving this link are similar to those of heart disease and cancer.
Another thing that makes it hard to interpret these studies is that they often use different chocolates, and so their ingredients and health effects may vary.
Compounds called flavanols are thought to be responsible for many of chocolate’s beneficial effects. These compounds are also found in tea, wine, fruits and vegetables. Different chocolates can vary greatly in their flavanol content. Cocoa beans naturally differ in their flavanol levels. A large portion of the flavanols can also be removed during processing. In fact, companies often remove these compounds intentionally because of their bitter taste. The end result is that there’s no way to know whether the products you’re looking at contain high flavanol levels.
So should you eat chocolate? Chocolate can have a lot of calories, and the importance of a healthy weight is well known. “If you’re eating chocolate, make sure to watch the calorie content, the fat content and the sugar content,” Su says.
“For those who are already consuming chocolate, I would advise them to look for the darker ones,” Djoussé adds, “not the white chocolate or the milk chocolate. You won’t get any of the benefit. It’s just going to be unneeded calories.”
Click Claims About Cocoa – NIH News in Health, August 2011 to read the full article.