The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Chocolate
By Lily Moran, NewportNaturalHealth.com
As a chocoholic, I’ve often reveled in the knowledge that dark chocolate is considered a healthy treat—and even a “super food.” After all, news and research headlines have touted chocolate as good for the heart, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, brain function, mood and depression, and even anti-aging.
For these reasons and more, I love giving high-quality, luxurious brands of rich, dark chocolate as gifts during the holidays and for birthdays. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good and healthy indulgence every once in a while?!
Sadly, it turns out that my logic may have been a little flawed. In fact, chocolate really isn’t as healthy as we’ve been led to believe over the years. Don’t shoot the messenger! Trust me, I’m not happy either.
Before I tell you why, here’s a little background about chocolate and how it has gained this health-conscious reputation in the first place.
A Long History
Chocolate dates back millennia. The seeds of Theobroma cacao—the plant from which chocolate is produced—were first cultivated by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations all the way back in 600 BC. They ground up and roasted the seeds into a paste mixed with water, vanilla, honey, and other seasonings and spices to brew (probably at the time, a pretty delicious) chocolaty beverage.1
Later, other civilizations, including the Aztecs and Mayans, ground up cacao seeds to make a bitter, spicy elixir they believed worked as a mood enhancer and aphrodisiac.2
By the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors who came to Mexico searching for treasures instead discovered the cacao plant. Once brought back to Spain, cacao became a much sought-after and savory symbol of wealth and power. Only the rich and influential could afford this expensive and tasty import.
Chocolate made its way to France in the early 1600s, after the daughter of Spanish King Philip III married French King Louis XIII. By then, the secret was out—and chocolate became so popular that powerful Europeans established plantations in warmer regions around the world to grow cacao plants.
During all this time, cacao was not only enjoyed for its flavor, but valued for its medicinal qualities. In addition to its mood and libido-boosting effects, Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean could treat rashes, fevers, diarrhea, coughs, and seizures, among other maladies.
Later on, cacao-based remedies were given to patients for angina, fatigue, gout, hemorrhoids, kidney problems, and even syphilis and measles.
While it’s up for debate whether or not cacao actually worked in treating or curing these conditions, one thing is clear: The cacao plant does have components that are very beneficial to our health.
All About the Antioxidants
Modern-day research has established that cacao contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been well-studied for their anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and cardioprotective effects. Cacao also has other valuable compounds, including theobromine and caffeine, which influence mood and alertness, and phenylethylamine, which acts as a stimulant and enhances athletic performance, attention, and weight loss.
The majority of the current research surrounding chocolate, however, has to do with its flavonoids. One study concluded that the flavonoids in “cocoa and chocolate may exert beneficial effects on cardiovascular risk via effects on lowering blood pressure, anti-inflammation, anti-platelet function, higher HDL, decreased LDL oxidation.”4
More recent research even found that chocolate can reduce the risk of heart failure as well.5
Sounds amazing! Almost too good to be true! Well, read on…
How Much Is Too Much?
All of this research indeed sounds wonderful. Who doesn’t want to add some chocolate to their daily diet and improve their health at the same time? Sadly, though, the amounts of flavonoids in a chocolate bar—much less the one or two tiny squares (max) that most medical professionals recommend every day—is not nearly enough to have any real impact on your health.
You would need to eat a huge amount of chocolate every day—bars upon bars—for your body to realize any benefit. At that point, the massive amount of calories, sugar, and fat you’d be consuming would negate any potential good.
Additionally, when you look at the studies that involve chocolate (not flavonoids, but actual chocolate), it’s a good idea to check the fine print—meaning, who is funding the study. A lot of the research is financially backed and supported by chocolate companies. It’s hard to take any of that research seriously because industry funding often leads to skewed findings.
Finally, it’s important to realize that most flavonoids in the cacao bean are destroyed during the manufacturing process. High temperatures and long exposure times during the making of a chocolate bar mean that, by the time the product reaches your grocery store shelf, the benefits are minimal at best.
So, bottom line, flavonoids are good for you. They protect your heart and brain and prevent diseases associated with these organs. But chocolate? Not so much.
What To Do?
I’d never suggest that you stop enjoying chocolate in moderation. I’m not mean! Have your square or two of dark chocolate every day. Enjoy it. Savor it. But stop thinking of it as a health food. It’s not.
And if you want to increase your intake of antioxidants such as flavonoids to therapeutic, disease-preventing levels, your best bet is to take that particular nutrient in supplement form. That’s really the only way you can supply your body with the amounts that have been scientifically proven to provide true value.
- Lippi D. Chocolate in history: food, medicine, medi-food. Nutrients. 2013 May;5(5):1573-84. Last accessed Dec. 8, 2019.
- Lippi D. Chocolate and medicine: dangerous liaisons? Nutrition. 2009 Nov-Dec;25(11-12):1100-3. Last accessed Dec. 8, 2019.
- Verna R. The history and science of chocolate. Malays J Pathol. 2013 Dec;35(2):111-21. Last accessed Dec. 9, 2019.
- Ding EL, et al. Chocolate and prevention of cardiovascular disease: a systematic review. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006 Jan 3;3:2. Last accessed Dec. 9, 2019.
- ESC Congress 2018. https://esc365.escardio.org/Congress/ESC-Congress-2018/Poster-Session-6-Nutrition-malnutrition-and-heart-disease/177563-chocolate-consumption-and-risk-of-heart-failure-a-meta-analysis-of-prospective-cohort-studies#abstract