Chocolate Is Good For You

Recently by Joseph Mercola: Don’t Give This to Your Daughter — Despite What Your Doctor Says

A recent meta-analysis sought to evaluate the association between chocolate consumption and the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders. “Cardiometabolic disorders” is a term that represents a cluster of interrelated risk factors that promote the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

These risk factors include:

  • Hypertension
  • Elevated fasting glucose
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Abdominal obesity
  • Elevated triglycerides

In the featured analysis, researchers pooled the results of seven studies that collectively included more than 114,000 participants. Five of the seven studies reported a beneficial association between chocolate consumption and reduced risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders.

Bear in mind that not all chocolate is created equal. I’ll review that in more detail below. As a general rule, any time “chocolate” is evaluated for its health benefits, we’re dealing with dark unprocessed chocolate and/or raw cacao – not your average processed milk chocolate candy bar. That said, the featured analysis found that the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with:

  • 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and
  • 29 percent reduction in stroke

The authors concluded that:

“Based on observational evidence, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders.”

Chocolate, Good for Your Cardiovascular Health

This isn’t the first time researchers have lauded dark chocolate as a heart-healthy choice. Five years ago, researchers discovered that small amounts of dark chocolate can cut your risk of heart attack because, like aspirin, chocolate has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot. Platelet clumping can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack.

Then, in 2008, researchers found that specially formulated raw cocoa powder has the potential to prevent cardiovascular disease in diabetics. Diabetic patients were given a special high-flavonol cocoa drink for one month, which brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired to normal. The improvement was actually as large as has been observed with exercise and many common diabetic medications.

More recently, researchers also discovered that a compound in dark chocolate, called epicatechin (a flavonoid), may protect your brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals that shield nerve cells from damage. A stroke is similar to a heart attack, but occurs when the blood supply to your brain becomes blocked or reduced, as opposed to blocking the blood supply to your heart. This deprives your brain of necessary oxygen and nutrients, causing your brain cells to begin to die within minutes. Certain antioxidants such as epicatechins (which are also found in tea, red wine, and certain fruits and vegetables) may offer significant benefits to stroke victims.

In that study, the animals that ingested epicatechin 1.5 hours prior to an induced stroke suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound. It appears the antioxidant stimulates two pathways known to shield nerve cells in your brain from damage, so when the stroke hits, your brain is “on standby,” if you will, ready to protect itself because these pathways are activated. According to the lead author, even a small amount of cacao may be sufficient to reap this protective health benefit!

Beware: Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

As mentioned at the beginning, these types of health benefits are mainly due to the high amounts of antioxidants present in pure cocoa, and any time you process the cocoa it loses its nutritional value. Hence, don’t expect to get these kinds of results from regular chocolate candy. Few chocolates still contain the active ingredient. This means that the chocolate that offers the greatest health benefits is also the kind that few people find truly mouthwatering, as it is very bitter — NOT sweet.

According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in terms of healthy antioxidant content, cocoa powder ranks first, followed by:

  • Unsweetened baking chocolate
  • Dark chocolate
  • Semi-sweet chocolate 

Milk chocolate should be avoided because in addition to being low in antioxidants it also contains milk, which further cancels out chocolate’s antioxidant effects. And it’s typically loaded with sugar, which does will do far more harm than good to your cardiovascular system. Another little-known concern about processed chocolate is lead contamination, which some suspect may be related to the processing.

To maximize your health advantages from dark chocolate, I recommend sticking to USDA Certified Organic chocolate. Interestingly enough, there appears to be a “Goldilocks Zone” when it comes to reaping health benefits from chocolate.