The next time you eat a piece of chocolate, you may not have to feel overly guilty about it. Despite its bad reputation for causing weight gain, there are a number of health benefits associated with this delicious treat.
Chocolate is made from tropical Theobroma cacao tree seeds and its earliest use dates back to the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica.
After the European discovery of the Americas, chocolate became very popular in the wider world, and its demand exploded.
Chocolate has since become an incredibly popular food product that millions indulge in every day, thanks to its unique, rich, and sweet taste.
But what effect does eating chocolate have on our health?
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on chocolate
Here are some key points about chocolate. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- In the past, chocolate consumption has been associated with conditions such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and hypertension.
- Chocolate has been praised by some experts for its antioxidant content.
- Some studies have suggested chocolate could lower cholesterol levels and prevent memory decline.
- Chocolate contains a large number of calories.
- The average American consumes around 4.5 kg of chocolate each year.
Possible health benefits of chocolate
Does chocolate have any health benefits?
Over the years, chocolate has received a lot of bad press because of its fat content; its consumption has been associated with acne, obesity, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and diabetes.
However, according to Rashed Latif, who published a review of chocolate's health effects in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine, it's not all bad news.
He says "the recent discovery of biologically active phenolic compounds in cocoa has changed this perception and stimulated research on its effects in aging, oxidative stress, blood pressure regulation, and atherosclerosis."
Today, chocolate is lauded for its tremendous antioxidant potential. The higher the cocoa content, the more health benefits there are and the less sugar content, which is better for overall health.
The potential benefits of eating chocolate may include:
- Lowering cholesterol levels
- Preventing cognitive decline
- Reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems
It is important to note that the possible health benefits mentioned below came from one-off studies, this means that more research will be necessary before they are proven to be correct. However, they certainly make interesting reading.
1) Chocolate lowers cholesterol
According to one study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, chocolate consumption might help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, also known as "bad fats." The team of researchers set out to investigate whether chocolate bars containing plant sterols (PS) and cocoa flavanols (CF) have any effect on cholesterol levels.
The study authors wrote, "results indicate that regular consumption of chocolate bars containing PS and CF, as part of a low-fat diet, may support cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and improving blood pressure."
2) Chocolate may prevent memory decline
Scientists at Harvard Medical School suggest that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day could help keep the brain healthy and reduce memory decline in older people.
The researchers found that hot chocolate helped improve blood flow to parts of the brain where it was needed. The lead author, Farzaneh A. Sorond, said:
"As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer's."
In a further study, published in 2014, researchers found that a cocoa extract - called lavado - could, perhaps, reduce or prevent damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer's disease. This means that symptoms of the condition - such as cognitive decline - could be slowed.
3) Chocolate and heart disease risk
Research, published in The BMJ, suggests that consuming chocolate could help lower the risk of developing heart disease by one-third. The report was presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris, France.
The authors concluded:
"Based on observational evidence, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders. Further experimental studies are required to confirm a potentially beneficial effect of chocolate consumption."
4) Chocolate and stroke
Canadian scientists carried out a study involving 44,489 individuals and found that people eating chocolate were 22 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who didn't. Also, those who had a stroke but regularly consumed chocolate were 46 percent less likely to die as a result.
In a further study, published in the journal Heart in 2015, researchers tracked the impact of diet on the long-term health of 25,000 men and women. The findings suggested that eating up to 100 grams of chocolate each day may be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
Other chocolate benefits in brief
Over recent years, there has been a great deal of interest in chocolate and its potential health effects. Below are some examples; links to the Medical News Today articles are in the text:
Eating chocolate during pregnancy may benefit fetal growth and development
Good news for expectant mothers: eating 30 grams of chocolate every day during pregnancy might benefit fetal growth and development. This is the conclusion of a study presented at the 2016 Pregnancy Meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Atlanta, GA.
Chocolate may streamline cognitive function
A study published in the journal Appetite, suggests eating chocolate at least once weekly has the potential to improve cognitive function.
Dark chocolate: a boost for athletes' performance?
Too sporty to indulge in chocolate? Think again, says research published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The findings suggest that a little dark chocolate might improve performance in fitness training.
Daily chocolate intake linked to lower risk of diabetes, heart disease
In the future, could a doctor's visit result in a prescription for chocolate? According to a new study, it is possible. Researchers suggest that consuming a small amount of chocolate every day could lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Risks and precautions for chocolate
Chocolate has a high calorie count, containing large amounts of sugar. Therefore, if an individual is trying to slim down or maintain their weight, it may be a good idea to set a limit on chocolate consumption. The large quantity of sugar in most chocolates can also be a cause of tooth decay.
In addition, there is research suggesting that chocolate might cause poor bone structure and osteoporosis.
One study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was carried out to identify the relationship between chocolate consumption and bone density in older women.
The authors concluded that "older women who consume chocolate daily had lower bone density and strength."
All in all, there are health benefits to chocolate, and, there are negative aspects to chocolate. As ever, moderation is key.