February, the month we look forward to, when chocolate is anticipated and enjoyed for Valentine’s Day. Can we give and receive chocolate with less guilt because of all the suggested health benefits of chocolate? It certainly appears so, as publications abound with the benefits of chocolate.
Chocolate, an extraordinary food, is made from cocoa beans -- seeds contained in fruit pods of the cocao tree. The seeds are full of medicinal chemicals which are responsible for their bitter taste. For example, chocolate contains flavanols, natural antioxidants that protect body cells from damage.
Dark chocolate is thought to be particularly beneficial. Dark chocolate normally is made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. Dark chocolate is often branded by its cocoa bean content. A 70% dark chocolate bar is 70% by weight cocoa, which includes the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter.
Because of all the research and excitement over chocolate’s health benefits, should we expect health claims on our chocolate bar wrappers? Perhaps, since Europe appears to be leading the way and the US often follows with its own food policies and claims. As reported in Nutraingredients' Healthy chocolate and the future for commodities, researchers have identified compounds that enhance blood flow, providing enough evidence for the European Safety Authority (EFSA) to provide a positive opinion on a health claim of a chocolate manufacturer:
"cocoa flavanols help maintain endothelium dependent vasodilation which contributes to normal blood flow"
In Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, a review of Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health by Corti and his co-authors provides an excellent discussion of the possible mechanisms which may be responsible for cocoa’s positive effects on cardiovascular health. These include activation of nitric oxide, which may enhance endothelial function and have a positive effect on blood pressure, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
A 2011 British Medical Journal paper by Buitrago-Lopez and her colleagues report findings of a systematic review and meta-analysis of chocolate consumption and the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders which include cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart failure, myocardial infarction), diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. In the paper they conclude "Based on observational evidence levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders." Although they do also state that further studies are required to confirm this benefit and, in addition, the paper did not give a suggested dose of chocolate.
Generally, a moderate intake is advised, which is about 1-2oz a day. Look for dark chocolate with less than 8 grams of sugar per serving and at least 70% cacoa or cocoa. Enjoy it by letting it melt on your tongue for about 5 seconds and then move it around in your mouth before swallowing.
Yes, of course, it is difficult to eat small amounts and if you eat more, remember the "golden rule" balance calories and activity. For example, take a brisk walk outside in the cold for the activity portion and balance calories by enjoying a hot cocoa beverage sweetened with a non-calorie sweetener. Cocoa compared to chocolate is low in fat and sugar.
Future researchers are examining the benefits of chocolate as a protective food for your brain, teeth, gut microbiota, and for its potential use as a treatment for people with varying degrees of compromised cardiovascular health.
Cocoa as a commodity will experience increased production as market demand increases. Brazil may be one of the fastest growing markets. In addition, there is increased attention to sustainable cocoa which reflects the sustainable food production initiatives all over the world.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004.
Healthy chocolate and the future for commodities. ConfectioneryNews.com’s 2013 predictions part two. http://www.nutraingredients.com/Industry/Healthy-chocolate-and-the-future-for-commodities (Accessed 1/22/13)
Corti R, Flammer AJ, Hollenberg NK, Lüscher TF. Cocoa and cardiovascular health. Circulation. 2009 Mar 17; 119(10):1433-41.
Buitrago-Lopez A, Sanderson J, Johnson L, Warnakula S, Wood A, Di Angelantonio E, Franco OH. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2011 Aug 26; 343:d4488.
Jo Ann Hattner MPH, RD is a consulting nutritionist practicing in San Francisco California. She also provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.