Health by Chocolate

How enjoying a little chocolate might actually help your health.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

"Take two squares of dark chocolate and call me in the morning." I'd be all over those doctor's orders! Can eating chocolate really be good for your health?

Well, if it is, I'm certainly in great shape. I rarely let a day go by in which I don't enjoy a little bite of chocolate. I crave a little bit a day, much like those people who MUST have two cups of coffee in the morning.

The craving usually hits me mid-morning or right after lunch. A couple of squares or a small handful of chocolate-covered nuts, and I'm good to go. I just love the smoothness and the flavor of chocolate. No other food quite compares to it.

Chocolate and Your Health

The possible health benefits of chocolate stem from the antioxidant flavonoids. Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, and cacao is extraordinarily rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid phytochemical. (Other plants rich in flavanols include tea, grapes, grapefruit, and wine.) That sounds simple enough, but some forms of chocolate have a lot more flavonoids than others.

So here's Health by Chocolate Rule of Thumb #1: The more nonfat cocoa solids a chocolate product contains, the more antioxidants it tends to contribute.

And what about the fat found in the cacao bean? It's true that cacao contains some saturated fat. But most of it is stearic acid -- which studies have suggested doesn't elevate blood cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fatty acids. The other fatty acids in cocoa butter are monounsaturated fat (considered a desirable fat) plus another saturated fat called palmitic fatty acid. But here's where it gets confusing: chocolate products can have other types of fat added, like "milk fat" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" or even coconut or palm oil (both naturally saturated oils), in addition to "cocoa butter."

So here's Health by Chocolate Rule of Thumb #2: If the chocolate contains fat ingredients other than cocoa butter, it might contain the more harmful saturated fats and trans fats, rather than stearic acid.

One tablespoon of cocoa butter oil contains:

  • 8 grams of saturated fat (4.5 grams of which are from stearic acid and 3.5 grams of which are from another saturated fatty acid).
  • 4.5 grams of monounsaturated fat.
  • 0.4 grams of polyunsaturated fat (most of which is omega-6 fatty acids).

The Possible Health Benefits of Chocolate

More research needs to be done, but recent studies suggest four possible health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa.

1. They May Reduce the Risk of Heart Attack.

A few squares of dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of death from heart attack by almost 50% in some cases, says Diane Becker, MPH, ScD, a researcher with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Becker's research found that blood platelets clotted more slowly in people who had eaten chocolate than in those who had not. This is significant because when platelets clump, a clot can form, and when the clot blocks a blood vessel, it can lead to a heart attack.

"The flavanols in cocoa beans have a biochemical effect of reducing platelet clumping, similar to but much less than aspirin," Becker says in an email interview.

After reviewing 136 scientific publications on chocolate and its components and heart disease, researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health concluded that short-term studies suggest cocoa and chocolate may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Decreasing LDL oxidation
  • Anti-inflammation action
2. They May Decrease Blood Pressure and Increase Insulin Sensitivity

Researchers in Italy recently fed 15 healthy people either 3 ounces of dark chocolate or the same amount of white chocolate -- which contains no flavanol phytochemicals -- for 15 days. They found that insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes) was significantly lowered in those who ate the dark chocolate. Systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading), measured daily, was also lower in the group eating dark chocolate.

3. They May Improve Arterial Blood Flow

Healthy men who consume flavanol-rich cocoa may see improvements in the flow of blood through their arteries, according to recent research. The researchers found that when healthy men consumed the flavanol-rich cocoa, the ability of their blood vessels to relax improved significantly. And arterial blood flow is important for cardiovascular health.

4. They May Help People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome