Chocolate: A Cardiovascular Hero...or Not?
To some, believing that chocolate has health benefits is akin to believing a man in red fur will bring presents next December. It's just too good to be true. And in some ways, those skeptics are correct. The chocolate you find in your Christmas stocking or your corner candy store, for instance, are not likely to do more than satisfy your sweet tooth. Yet mounting evidence suggests that certain types of chocolate can improve your cardiovascular health.
Before you load up on chocolate bars, however, it's important to understand some of the facts behind the science:
- It's all about the flavonols. Flavonols, compounds found within the cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate, seem to have a variety of health benefits. They've been found to work as antioxidants that repair damaged cells and prevent plaque buildup in arteries. Research also shows that they may lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, lower bad cholesterol, increase good cholesterol, and reduce the risk of clots.
- But most chocolate is NOT flavonol-friendly. Unfortunately, the process used to create commercial chocolate results in the loss of flavonols. Unsweetened or dark chocolate usually retains the highest amount of flavonols, but the benefit is often diluted by milk added to the cocoa which can reduce the antioxidant power. Plus, many products include caramel, marshmallows, and other high-calorie, high-fat ingredients. This means that in order to consume enough cocoa for a health boost, you need to take in hundreds of extra empty calories and fat per day. That usually negates any gains.
- The research is still fuzzy. Reports about the possible health benefits of chocolate make for good news headlines. Read the full stories, though, and you'll realize that the research done thus far is far from conclusive. For instance, a 2012 review of 18 chocolate-related studies did find evidence that cocoa may positively impact blood pressure, lower the risk of heart disease, and improve health in other areas. However, the report also stressed that, overall, the studies had a very small number of participants or had been done with animals. The bottom line: the studies justify doing more research. Based on what they know so far, doctors are not likely to recommend that you add any type of chocolate to your diet.
- In the end, there are probably better ways to get the benefits of flavonols. Most studies in this area are not actually done with typical chocolate. Instead, researchers may use unsweetened cocoa powder that has none of the sugar or fat that goes into the sweets we love. The powder has a higher concentration of flavonols to allow researchers to measure the effects of large doses. Seeing positive results with the high concentrations, researchers have been looking at how to harness the health benefits of chocolate by creating concentrated supplements or fortified products vs. a bigger, better candy bar.
Doctors also point out that there are health-boosting flavonols in a variety of other foods and beverages including cranberries, apples, nuts, teas, and red wine. The best approach for protecting your heart might be to add a small amount of each of these foods to your diet along with moderate amounts of chocolate that contains 60 to 70 percent cocoa.
Bauer, S.R. "Flavonoid-rich cocoa consumption affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors in a meta-analysis of short-term studies." Journal of Nutrition. 141:11 (2011). Sep. 28, 2011. Web. April 25, 2012
Esposito, Lisa. "Chocolate a Sweet Remedy for Many Ills?" U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. March 29, 2012. Web April 25, 2012
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