Chocolate has a bit of a bad reputation. It’s considered a junk food, and fair play. If you eat chocolate in excess (as may or may not happen in our household) you can expect at some point to experience the downsides of cavities, obesity and general poor health.
For the more health conscious above us, those downsides should be enough to put us off eating chocolate altogether.
Of course, there’s more to it.
There’s the pleasurable experience of enjoying a piece melting in your mouth. There’s the social experience of being gifted some special chocolates. And there’s also just such a great variation in the quality of chocolate that makes it impossible to tar all chocolate with the same brush.
So does chocolate really deserve such a bad reputation overall?
Is it a snack to be eaten with caution, or is it a natural remedy that provides health benefits?
The godly qualities of chocolate
Chocolate, derived from the seeds of the cacao tree, has a long history in human society. In more ancient times, it was viewed as an invigorating ‘drink of the Gods’1.
The Mayans first started to consume chocolate back in 400 AD1. Back then, it was made into a drink that was mixed with cinnamon and pepper that smoothed out the extreme bitter taste produced by the plant1.
By 1200 AD – when the Aztecs began to dominate over Mayan society – it became even more popular. People believed that the tree was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, granting wisdom and knowledge1. It also became such a valuable commodity that it was used as a currency and stored with other precious assets such as gold1.
Later, Cortez brought the plant back to Europe and it slowly gained popularity into the delicate treat it is today.
But beyond wisdom, currency and social enjoyment, what are the actual health benefits?
Some of the health benefits of chocolate
There are many parts of the cacao that provide health benefits. For example, the polyphenols found within cacao are said to
- decrease microorganism present in the mouth to prevent cavities2,
- increase the presence of some gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (but decrease Clostridium)3, and
- may also facilitate nitric oxide synthesis4, which is important for various physiologic functions such as immune function in macrophages, blood vessel relaxation and neuron communication5.
Higher chocolate consumption has also been linked with a decreased risk of coronary artery disease4. Worth noting: these benefits are more linked to a higher amount of cacao (think 70% plus), not the ‘chocolate’ that’s loaded with sugar and has but a sprinkling of the actual good stuff.
And for many of us, that takes a little taste adjustment.
I remember being in Peru on the Inca trail years back and tasting near-pure cacao, and it was quite a different taste and texture experience to what I’ve become accustomed to. The producer gave us a spoonful of honey to accompany the tasting to make it more palatable– which definitely made it more enjoyable – but if I’m honest, it didn’t quite hit the mark for this chocoholic.
And of course, I’m not alone. The Mayans already knew way back that the taste of cacao needed to be complemented and balanced by adding in other bits to create something tasty. Nowadays, milk, sugar and honey are added to the mix to create what we commonly refer to as chocolate.
But make no mistake. The ingredients that likely contribute to the positive benefits of chocolate are derived from the cacao plant itself. Therefore, the darker the chocolate – and closer it is to pure cacao – the more likely you are to enjoy the benefits.
The science behind chocolate and improved cardiovascular health
If you’re wondering how chocolate (and cacao) actually make the magic happen in your body, here are a couple of scientific theories:
- Research suggests that it may be because the flavanols found within cacao reduce platelet aggregation thereby allowing tissue to maintain healthy function by providing an adequate supply of blood4.
- Alternatively, it may be that eating chocolate raises one’s Apolipoprotein count, which regulates lipids within the vascular system and are important for vascular health and in preventing cardiovascular disease6.
Of course, it may be a combination of these two mechanisms that allow chocolate to improve cardiovascular health.
Looks like there’s still some work to do to confirm exactly what’s going on, but what’s maybe as important is that it’s actually having an impact.
Some bad news about chocolate
Of course, like everything, chocolate doesn’t benefit everyone.
As mentioned earlier, chocolate has been shown to increase the presence of some microbiota while decreasing others. This means that it may be beneficial to some while also being harmful towards others, depending on the needs of the individual. You may already know if chocolate is a superfood or not for you.
Additionally, chocolate has minimal to no benefits on cardiovascular health for those who suffer from diabetes7.
But wait! Good news about chocolate and ageing
There is one last bit of research that provide a truly fascinating observation of how chocolate may be of great overall benefit to our health and longevity. When it comes to the study of aging there are two main biological markers:
- Telomere length, which is the length of our chromosomal DNA that shortens over time and causes cell death when depleted, and
- Free radicals, which are produced by natural processes of the body that eventually become too great in number and cause oxidative stress that can cause general bodily decay and cellular death.
Both of these processes are distinct yet common biomarkers when analysing the aging and longevity of humans. It is suggested that learning to slow down the natural occurrence of these processes could result in a longer and healthier life.
Experiments involving chocolate consumption propose that chocolate may do just that. They may slow down the ageing process.
While cacao consumption increases nitric oxide synthesis, which can be helpful in several bodily functions, nitric oxide is also considered a free radical, which can eventually lead to the oxidative stress and the degradation of the cells of our body.
However, it’s been shown that cacao consumption actually reduces malondialdehyde and 8-iso-rostaglandin, which are both biomarkers of oxidative stress8.
This means that although cacao may increase the existence of free radicals, it actually helps in preventing oxidative stress. It may contribute to providing greater longevity and prevent aging.
On a similar note, a study found that those who consume two or more servings a week of chocolate have longer telomeres than those who don’t, further adding to the evidence that chocolate is able to increase the life of our cells and our body.
Perhaps the Mayans were right! It really is an invigorating substance.
Go forth and eat chocolate
I’ve long been known as a chocoholic. Chocolate is my drug of choice. I have stints off it – in the past it’s often been during Lent in the run up to Easter – but inevitably, I invite it back into my life.
It’s just so good. At least some of it is. Melt in the mouth, silky texture. Surprising flavour combinations. A punch of chilli. A pinch of salt.
Yum. Yum. Yum.
But the dark side is inevitably the sugar, which is also my other pull. I gravitative more towards the low cacao content bars and find it hard not to eat the whole lot in one sitting.
But dark chocolate isn’t so easy to scoff down. It feels much more refined (which is of course ironic, considering it’s less refined in terms of processing).
Better still, it does have actual health benefits.
I’ve tried to shift my thinking from seeing the high sugar/low cacao chocolate as being a treat to thinking that buying higher cacao chocolate is the actual treat.
All those good things – the polyphenols, the flavanols, even the caffeine – do have actual benefits. When you eat small bits of the proper stuff, that darker chocolate, it can be seen as a healthy snack.
So enjoy it. Pleasure and health do not always have to be opposites.
References and further resources
- Verna R. The history and science of chocolate. Malaysian Journal of Pathology. 2013;35(2):111-121.
- Nimbulkar G, Parida R, Chhabra KG, Deolia S, Reche A, Patel S. Dark chocolates: Friend or foe – A review. European Journal of Molecular and Clinical Medicine. 2020;7(7):1772-1778.
- Ma G, Chen Y. Polyphenol supplementation benefits human health via gut microbiota: A systematic review via meta-analysis. Journal of Functional Foods. 2020;66:103829. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2020.103829
- Krittanawong C, Narasimhan B, Wang Z, et al. Association between chocolate consumption and risk of coronary artery disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Published online July 22, 2020:204748732093678. doi:10.1177/2047487320936787
- Dawson TM, Dawson VL. Nitric Oxide: Actions and Pathological Roles. The Neuroscientist. 1995;1(1):7-18. doi:10.1177/107385849500100103
- Chen L, Zhu H, Gutin B, Sesso HD, Dong Y. Higher chocolate intake is associated with longer telomere length among adolescents. Pediatric Research. 2020;87(3):602-607. doi:10.1038/s41390-019-0590-6
- Tanghe A, Heyman E, vanden Wyngaert K, et al. Evaluation of blood pressure lowering effects of cocoa flavanols in diabetes mellitus: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Functional Foods. 2021;79:104399. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2021.104399
- Mehrabani S, Arab A, Mohammadi H, Amani R. The effect of cocoa consumption on markers of oxidative stress: A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventional studies. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2020;48:102240. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2019.102240