Savour the Sweet Science: Exploring the Remarkable Health Benefits of Chocolate!
In today's world, where the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is a top priority for many, it may come as a pleasant surprise that something as indulgent as chocolate can offer a range of potential health benefits. From tantalizing our taste buds to possibly boosting our mood and even supporting heart and brain health, chocolate has become a subject of interest for researchers in recent years. Let’s explore the intriguing world of chocolate and discover how this delectable treat may hold surprising health-promoting properties.
Cocoa has been used by humans for the past 3000 years (1), with chocolate being enjoyed as a luxury food item as far back as 400AD (2). Made from the cacao bean, chocolate is rich in bioactive compounds called polyphenols. These polyphenols are thought to contribute toward the heart health benefits of chocolate. The polyphenol content of the chocolate depends on the manufacturing process. Simply, the darker the chocolate, the greater the polyphenol content (1).
So, what are polyphenols and why all the fuss? Polyphenols are compounds that naturally occur in plants and are used by plants protect against UV radiation and pathogens (3). Humans have taken an interest in them due to their antioxidant abilities (i.e., protective against oxidative stress and inflammation). Research has suggested that these compounds can protect against several human conditions such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, ageing, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (3).
When it comes to chocolate, the main polyphenols are flavonoids (e.g., catechins and anthocyanidins). These contribute toward the suggested health benefits of chocolate. Several systematic reviews and meta-analyses have sought to provide a clearer understanding of the effects of short-term and long-term chocolate consumption (4–9). Many of these reviews concluded that chocolate consumption was associated with a one third reduction in cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk (9), improved biomarkers of CVD risk (6), consuming chocolate once a week (or more) led to a reduction in coronary artery disease risk (4,8) and benefits cognitive performance in young adults as well as elderly populations (10). Interestingly, having 30g of dark chocolate per day may even reduce weight and BMI over 4 to 8 weeks (11).
While these all sound wonderful, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis done by Tan and colleagues found that long term (>4 weeks) of chocolate supplementation had no effect on blood pressure, lipid profile, cognitive function, body weight, skin health, blood glucose, and quality of life in healthy individuals (12).
The conflicting findings might be related to the variation in chocolate/cocoa-products used in the interventions as well as the age and health status of the participants. The trends that seem to emerge from the literature are that dark chocolate and other cocoa products likely do not cause any harm and may have a beneficial effect on brain performance and CVD risk (4,10). Given the higher polyphenol content in darker chocolates, these might be more likely to have a beneficial effect.
Often when it comes to eating chocolate (or other sweet treats), there is a feeling of craving followed by a feeling of guilt. Research done by the experts at John Hopkins Medicine showed that up to 45% of women reported having this very relationship with chocolate. The guilt associated with indulgence in a seemingly “unhealthy” food may lead to a negative relationship with chocolate. Interestingly, this negative relationship with certain foods might negatively affect long term weight management. Studies show that women who enjoy a piece of chocolate cake for celebratory purposes, versus women who don’t allow themselves any celebratory foods, were less successful at managing their weight (13). JHM identified the key factor in creating a good relationship with the acceptance of it, and to stop identifying it as a “bad” food choice (13).
Since chocolate may have useful health benefits, there is a good case to support chocolate as a “good” food choice. So, this World Chocolate Day, enjoy some delicious chocolate guilt-free.
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- Higginbotham E, Taub PR. Cardiovascular Benefits of Dark Chocolate? Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2015;17. doi: 10.1007/S11936-015-0419-5.
- Fernández RF, Nutrients AOA-, 2013 undefined, 5 vol., 2013 undefined. Health benefits of methylxanthines in cacao and chocolate. diposit.ub.edu [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2023 Jul 6];5:4159–4173. doi: 10.3390/nu5104159.
- Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxid Med Cell Longev [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2023 Jul 6];2:270. doi: 10.4161/OXIM.2.5.9498. Cited: in: : PMID: 20716914.
- Ding EL, Hutfless SM, Ding X, Girotra S. Chocolate and prevention of cardiovascular disease: A systematic review. Nutr Metab. 2006;3. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-3-2.
- Gianfredi V, Salvatori T, Nucci D, Villarini M, Nutrition MM-, 2018 undefined. Can chocolate consumption reduce cardio-cerebrovascular risk? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Elsevier [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6];
- Hooper L, Kay C, … AA-… A journal of, 2012 undefined. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. academic.oup.com [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6];
- Khawaja O, Gaziano JM, Djoussé L. Chocolate and coronary heart disease: A systematic review. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2011;13:447–452. doi: 10.1007/S11883-011-0203-2. Cited: in: : PMID: 21894553.
- Krittanawong C, Narasimhan B, … ZW-E journal of, 2021 undefined. Association between chocolate consumption and risk of coronary artery disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. academic.oup.com [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6];
- Buitrago-Lopez A, Sanderson J, Bmj LJ-, 2011 undefined. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. bmj.com [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 6]; doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4488.
- Martín M, Goya L, Nutrients S de P-T-, 2020 undefined. Effect of cocoa and cocoa products on cognitive performance in young adults. mdpi.com [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 5]; doi: 10.3390/nu12123691.
- Kord-Varkaneh H, Ghaedi E, Nazary-Vanani A, Mohammadi H, Shab-Bidar S. Does cocoa/dark chocolate supplementation have favorable effect on body weight, body mass index and waist circumference? A systematic review, meta-analysis and. Taylor Fr [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Jul 6];59:2349–2362. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2018.1451820.
- Yi Lim X, Yew Chin Tan T, Hsiao Hui Yeo J, Wen Huey Lee S, Ming Lai N. The Health Effects of Chocolate and Cocoa: A Systematic Review. Nutrients 2021, 13, 2909. mdpi.com [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Jul 6]; doi: 10.3390/nu13092909.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Benefits of Having a Healthy Relationship with Chocolate.