When some of us initially heard the news that chocolate is good for you, we took the revelation with a large grain of salt. Surely, our Inner Cynics thought, something we’ve grown up thinking was equivalent to “sin” couldn’t really be healthy.
Calling chocolate a health food might be a stretch, but according to the latest University of California/Berkeley Wellness Letter, several recent large-scale research reviews appear to support the idea that chocolate is good for your heart.
In one review, researchers analyzed data from seven studies of more than 100,000 subjects. The people who ate the most chocolate had a 37 percent lower risk of heart disease, after controlling for diet, education, physical activity and other factors. This same chocolate-besotted group proved to be 29 percent less likely to have a stroke.
In another review, Harvard researchers analyzed 10 clinical studies from the last decade. The group of subjects was smaller this time — 320 people — but the results were still observable. Consuming dark chocolate or “cocoa products” for 2 to 12 weeks lowered cholesterol somewhat. Another review found that cocoa-rich products had a small effect in lowering blood pressure in people with hypertension and prehypertension.
These health benefits are largely due to the flavonoids in chocolate, the same family of polyphenol compounds found in tea, red wine, grape juice and other colorful plant-based foods that provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties.
But there are caveats, wouldn’t you know. Many of the studies are “observational,” meaning that they don’t absolutely prove that chocolate, rather than some heretofore uncharted chocolate-eater behavior, is responsible for the health benefits.
Most important, the kind of chocolates that many consumers in the U.S. like so much have sugary, gooey, fatty additional ingredients that probably cancel out most of the health benefits.
However, dark chocolate generally has more flavonoids than milk chocolate, and, as general rule, the darker the chocolate, the less room there is for sugar. So if you like the flavor of dark chocolate (personally, it can’t get too dark for some of us in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS office), you’ll be happy to know there is such a thing as healthy chocolate, especially if you eat it in place of other snacks or high-calorie desserts. In our experience — which, with chocolate, is vast — eating a couple of squares of deeply flavorful Free-trade, organic dark chocolate is magnitudes of flavor more satisfying than eating sugary, high-fat sweets.
We call these squares of chocolate deliciousness “antioxidant drops” and now feel more justified than ever in keeping these beautiful, healthy chocolate bars in our desks.
K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden. Find her on Google+.