Humans have consumed some form of chocolate since at least 500 AD, although what our ancestors ate and what we think of as chocolate today is vastly different. People all over the world have a love affair with chocolate, and Americans are no different. Based on 2015 numbers, the average American person consumes approximately 9.5 pounds per year, which is actually less than people in many European countries.
For a long time, chocolate was seen as an indulgence, but recently it has started to redeem its reputation, especially the darker varieties. There’s a long history of chocolate’s medicinal use, further supporting its place among a list of beneficial foods. So, is this delightful treat something that you should feel guilty about eating, or is it one that you can consider a health food? Let’s see what the literature has to say about it.
Beneficial Components of Cocoa
There are many potential factors for cocoa’s health benefits. The main health-promoting compounds include:
- Polyphenols: Flavonoids (flavonols), proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins, and more
- Methylxanthines: Caffeine and theobromine
- Essential minerals: 90% cocoa chocolate contains minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium
Additionally, cocoa is one of the foods richest in antioxidants. According to one study that tested 1,113 food samples, 5 of the top 50 foods per serving size were chocolate-based. The antioxidant components have the potential to mitigate oxidative stress to improve health, specifically that associated with NOX-2.
Chocolate and Disease
The polyphenols in cocoa present with several cardioprotective properties, including anti-hypertensive effects, anti-inflammatory effects, improving vascular function, boosting antioxidant capacity, positively modulating lipid profiles, and antiplatelet activity. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that in the highest level of chocolate consumption, there was a 29% reduction in stroke and 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease compared to the lowest consumption.
Studies have also found benefits to other aspects of heart health, including:
- An inverse association with atrial fibrillation
- Reduced arterial stiffness
- Decreased incidence of heart failure
- Enhanced endothelial function
- Improved cardiometabolic biomarkers (HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting insulin, HOMA-IR, insulin sensitivity indexes, and C-reactive protein)
Studies have also found the potential for chocolate to improve metabolic health, including metabolic syndrome and related disorders. In a prospective analysis of the data from the Physician’s Health Study, there was an inverse relation of consuming chocolate with the incidence of diabetes, especially in younger and normal-weight men and those without a history of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, in one cross-sectional study on healthy adults, daily consumption of chocolate was statistically significantly correlated with lower HOMA-IR, serum insulin levels, and liver enzymes even after adjusting for other lifestyle and diet factors.
Flavonoids have also been shown to be beneficial for cognitive function, especially as they can cross the blood-brain barrier to provide antioxidant defense and impart other beneficial actions, such as improving the vascular system and increasing cerebral blood flow. Due to the neuroprotective benefits, studies have found a positive correlation between cocoa consumption and certain aspects of brain function:
- Lower risk of cognitive decline
- Improvement in insulin sensitivity and age-related cognitive decline
- Improvement in cognitive function in those with early signs of decline
- Reduction in perceived stress
- Decreased mental fatigue
- Enhanced cognitive performance
- Improved visual acuity and contrast sensitivity
Cultivating a Relationship with Chocolate
Although studies have pointed to potential benefits of chocolate, there may be some things to consider regarding your own relationship with chocolate. Many people may knowingly or unknowingly turn to chocolate for its mood-modulating benefits, including reducing anxiety and increasing calmness and contentedness. In certain personalities, chocolate cravings increase during states of emotional distress or dysregulation, such as depression, irritation, or anxiety, and consuming chocolate becomes a comfort food.
Those who consider themselves “chocolate addicts” may not get the same emotional benefits. In one study of 40 people (20 self-identified chocolate addicts and 20 controls), the addicts tended to eat more chocolate and also had higher ratings for guilt, depression, and cravings. Rather than lessening these feelings, consuming the chocolate increased guilty feelings and did not change their feelings of depression or put them into a more relaxed state or improve their mood. Another study found that consuming either an apple or chocolate led to elevated mood, increased activation, and reduced hunger. Those who felt guilt rather than joy in eating the chocolate had less intense positive emotions.
Chocolate’s hedonic appeal—thanks to its combination of mood-modulating effects and psychoactive ingredients along with its nutritional makeup—may lead to a more emotional, craving-based relationship with it rather than one in which it’s an occasional treat. Interestingly, exercise may attenuate chocolate cravings, even when one is exposed to chocolate.
Therefore, it is important to weigh the potential physical benefits with your emotional relationship with chocolate. I always like to explore the deeper meaning of a food craving—what does it truly symbolize? That said, it is possible for many people to cultivate a healthy relationship with chocolate, especially if you know some of the healthier components to look for when choosing a treat.
Choosing a Healthy Chocolate Treat
Many of these studies have found some benefit to eating chocolate, but often not in terms of the more the better. Generally, those who consumed some chocolate but were not among the top consumers had the largest benefit. The studies that did compare between varieties found dark chocolate to have a better impact.
The following are a few key things to bear in mind when choosing chocolate for a treat.
- Select high-percentage of cocoa content for the most flavonols, other phytochemicals, and nutrients.
- Choose organic, as cocoa is known to have biogenic amines such as histamine, and organic samples have lower levels. Additionally, organic will have lower levels of other potential contaminants, such as pesticides or heavy metals.
- Read the ingredients label and minimize additional unhealthy ingredients, such as sugar and foods you react to, such as gluten, dairy, and soy.
- Choose dark over white or milk chocolate for maximum health benefits.
- Be aware of your need for chocolate and chocolate cravings, especially if you are an emotional eater.
- If you do turn to chocolate to improve your mood, eat with awareness of how your body feels.
- Go for a 15-minute brisk walk to decrease chocolate cravings.
- Explore the reason(s) for chocolate cravings with a health professional
This is just a sampling of some more recent studies looking into the health benefits of chocolate, but there are many more studies out there, some of them looking at additional benefits such as immune support, skin health, reproductive health, and metabolic endotoxemia. Based on the evidence and depending on your health practitioner’s guidance, you may be able to indulge in a little bit of chocolate as part of your overall healthy diet filled with a variety of rainbow foods and see some protective effects, especially in terms of your cardiovascular, metabolic, and brain health.
For those who experience intense chocolate cravings or who consume chocolate to lessen emotions, it may be worthwhile to work with a health professional to unearth the reasons for your draw to chocolate if you feel you’d like to be more balanced in your relationship with it. Additionally, those who have allergies or other negative reactions to chocolate should abstain from consumption and choose other food sources for the flavonols, nutrients, and other phytochemicals found in chocolate. As always, discuss this with your doctor, nutritionist, and/or another healthcare practitioner to learn more about the impact on your own unique situation.