“The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee…” - Thomas Jefferson
Mr. Jefferson was either a secret chocoholic or was way ahead of time. Either way, he was 100% right about chocolate’s popularity. The average person in the U.S. consumes almost 9.5 lbs of the stuff every year. Coffee and tea don’t even come close! But what about TJ’s claims on chocolate’s the superiority for health and nourishment? Like most things in life, big health claims should be taken with a grain of salt (or if you’re like me, maybe some sea salt caramel dark chocolates… ).
Chocolate has become of the most ubiquitous and beloved flavors in modern day deserting. When I think of pure indulgence, the smell, deep flavor and unforgettable texture of dark chocolate melting on my tongue is at the top of my list. In fact, my love for chocolate is so well known that most of my gifts include some variation of the substance. But like anything that tastes so good, I always feel guilty after indulging. Can this stuff really be good for me?
In recent pop culture, we hear all sorts of claims about the myriad of health effects of this mysterious seed. If you google the phrase “chocolate health,” you will be inundated with headlines praising its benefits. Although the specific claims vary wildly, some universal truths remain apparent: dark chocolate is “better for you” than other varieties, chocolate may contain anti-oxidants, fight cancer, and even prevent cardiovascular disease. But what is chocolate? Are any of these claims true? Can something so decadent really be healthy?
Theobroma cacao is a type of evergreen tree native to south america that bears fleshy fruit containing cocoa seeds (ie. cocoa beans) which is the source of all chocolate products. Consumption of the cocoa seed has gone back as far as 1900 B.C. in the form of fermented beverages. The seeds were heavily prized. Some cultures believed the products were a potent aphrodisiac, and cocoa beans were even used as a form of currency in ancient Mesoamerica. Amazingly, these practices have carried over for thousands of years, as chocolate is often offered as a sign of affection and used as gifts.
When producing chocolate as we now know it these beans are boiled, dried, roasted, shelled and melted into two primary products: cocoa butter (pale yellow fat) and cocoa solids (i.e. powder). Almost all of the chocolate products you can think of are combinations of these two ingredients (with added sugar and milk, of course):
- White chocolate = cocoa butter + sugar + milk
- Milk chocolate = cocoa solids (usually less) + sugar + milk
- Dark chocolate = cocoa solids (usually more) + fat + sugar
Modern production of the now cash crop has skyrocketed. In 2013, over 4.5 million tons of co
coa beans were harvested worldwide. We now have access to delicacies such as chocolate covered bacon, chocolate covered potato chips, chocolate tea, chocolate perfumes, chocolate body paint and even tobacco chocolate.
THE HEALTH EFFECTS:
Some of the more common claims of chocolate’s benevolence appear to be true. Cocoa solids are a rich source of “flavonoid” antioxidants. The term flavonoid refers to ringed structures that act as potent electron “acceptors” and are thought to absorb these elections when they are emitted as a free-radial. Flavonoids can provide stability and support in an environment when inflammation, damage or mutations may be introduced. This type of inflammation is a key to our current understanding of cardiovascular injury and heart disease. Research has shown that, the combination of flavanoids as part of a low fat diet and regular exercise may be beneficial to your health. One study even showed that flavanoids found in chocolate caused an almost immediate reversal of a memory deficit in snails (don’t ask us how to test a snail’s memory; we’re just as baffled as you are).
Chocolate is also good for your mental health (duh, right?). Studies have shown that consumption of this delicious delicacy is positively correlated with improved mood, and may help alleviate symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. There is some suggestion that eating more chocolate is associated with decreased cognitive decline!
There has to be a catch right? Or should we all start coating all our food in chocolate? (Yes that’s a chocolate covered onion).
The unfortunate truth is that for every study showing positive health effects from chocolate, there is a study that shows little or no benefit at all. Even scarier, most studies that show no benefit are not published, possibly skewing the available information to seem overly rosy for chocolate lovers. With a quick search of the scientific literature on the topic, I was able to find several studies that demonstrate no positive benefit in chocolate consumption. For example, a Belgian study found that daily consumption of chocolate in healthy men had no effect on blood pressure or other cardiovascular health risk factors. Another research team out of Minnesota found no improvement in cardiovascular indicators after patients undergoing chemotherapy consumed high levels of anti-oxidant flavonoids.
But what about the mental health benefits? Unfortunately, even those findings are suspect. Studies have shown an association between increased chocolate consumption and depression. To be fair, it's also possible that sad people eat more chocolate too. The most compelling evidence comes from a large double-blind trial (meaning the subjects didn't know if they were eating chocolate or not) out of the Virginia Poly-technical Institute. They showed no significant mood or memory changes due to chocolate consumption. It did, however show that the chocolate subject had an increased heart rate at the end of the trial.
What this all means is that the jury is still out on the health impacts of chocolate. It takes decades of expensive research to be able to draw sound conclusions on any topic. With the current shortage of research dollars (and little hope of improvement in the near future) the reality is that we will likely not be able to draw meaningful conclusions for another generation or two.
Additionally, dessert chocolate is caloric, contains a high percentage of saturated fat, and has a large amount of added sugars. We won’t get into the debate on saturated fat quite yet, but the majority of consumers eat too much of the wrong types of foods, and chocolate is no exception. Almost all of the commonly consumed cocoa products are sweetened, and the small recommended portion sizes are rarely adhered to. Although we have not done a study to prove it (yet), we would almost guarantee that health risks caused by the volume of chocolate consumed by healthy consumers outweighs the potential benefits of the product.
We are not recommending abstinence from the beautiful and amazing food. To do so would be hypocritical, as we consume chocolate several times a week. However, it is not appropriate to use the health benefits of cocoa to justify cheating on your diet. But it can be an added source of dietary sugar, fat, and calories that contribute to chronic disease. Small amounts and occasional over-consumption are probably not bad for your health. My dad used to say that everything is excess can and will be bad for you (even water), so remember to double check your serving size before you splurge. Go ahead and live a little! In moderation, of course....
What are your thoughts on chocolate? How do you consume it? Milk or dark chocolate? Let us know in the comments!