With the average American consuming around 4.5 kg of chocolate each year, it is safe to say it is one of the nation’s most loved treats. It is not hard to fathom why; it tastes delicious and stimulates the release of endorphins – the “feel-good” hormones. And according to numerous studies in recent years, chocolate is amazingly good for our health… or is it?
The average American eats around 4.5 kg of chocolate annually.
Earlier this week, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal Heart, in which researchers from the UK claim eating up to 100 g of chocolate daily may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Great news,” said one of our followers on Facebook in response to this research. “Good, because I can’t live without chocolate, I eat it daily!” said another. Such comments are common in relation to any stories hailing the health benefits of chocolate. Many people like to hear good news about a food deemed to be a “guilty pleasure.” Naturally, it makes many people feel better about eating it.
Other MNT readers, however, were not convinced by the claims of the Heart study, with some questioning how chocolate could possibly have that effect on health when it contains high levels of fat and sugar, while others stated it must have been funded by a chocolate manufacturer. It was, in fact, funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.
The difference in opinion about that study is a reflection of the confusion among the general public about whether chocolate really offers health benefits.
In this Spotlight, we ask, can chocolate really be good for our health? Or are the potential health benefits of this much-loved treat overstated?
The ‘food of the gods’
When we think of chocolate, many of us visualize a big, chunky bar of sweet deliciousness. But originally, chocolate was only consumed as a bitter beverage.
Chocolate – which is made using beans from the cacao tree, native to Central and South America – is estimated to date back as far as 1900 BC, when it was created by pre-Olmec cultures residing in present-day Mexico. The ancient Mesoamericans roasted the cacao beans, or cocoa beans, before grinding them into a paste that was mixed with hot water, vanilla, chili and other spices to make a frothy drink.
The Olmec, Aztec and Mayan civilizations found chocolate to be a mood-lifting drink and an aphrodisiac, so much so that they believed the beverage had spiritual qualities. The Mayans even worshipped a cacao God, and the beverage was used for religious and sacred ceremonies, hence why chocolate is often referred to as the “food of the gods.”
It wasn’t until 1847 that chocolate became the solid edible bar we know and love today. A British chocolate company called J.S Fry & Sons created it using cocoa butter – vegetable fat extracted from the cocoa bean – cocoa powder and sugar.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, well-known chocolate manufacturers such as Hershey, Cadbury and Mars were formed, and they have been bringing us an array of heavenly sweet treats ever since.
But while we are thankful to these companies for catering to our chocolate needs, they are also responsible for adding potentially unhealthy ingredients to what could be an otherwise healthy – albeit less tasty – food, giving chocolate its reputation as a diet demon.
What is in our chocolate?
Cocoa beans – from which chocolate is made – are believed to contain more than 300 compounds that are beneficial to health.
They are packed full of flavanoids and flavanols, such as anthocyanidin and epicatechins. These are antioxidants, which are known to destroy free radicals in the body – chemicals that can cause damage to DNA and other cell components, accelerating aging and contributing to heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
The main ingredient in chocolate – cocoa beans – contains more than 300 compounds that are beneficial to health.
The darker the chocolate, the more flavanoids and flavanols it contains, which explains why the majority of chocolate studies have hailed dark chocolate – rather than milk or white – for its health benefits.
Cocoa beans also contain dopamine, phenylethylamine and serotonin, all of which are compounds that are known to enhance mood and promote feelings of well-being.
So if the main ingredient in chocolate is full of healthy compounds, why shouldn’t we eat it by the bucketload?
Put simply, the negative health effects of chocolate primarily come from the additional ingredients that are added to it during the commercial manufacturing process. Sugar, full-fat cream and milk are just some of these ingredients, and the quantities in which they are added are not slight.
A standard 43 g bar of Hershey’s milk chocolate contains 13 g of fat, 24 g of sugar and 210 calories. Eating this product in high quantities could lead to weight gain, and being overweight can increase the risk of numerous health problems, including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
Because of its high sugar content, chocolate may also raise the risk of dental problems – including gum disease and cavities – if consumed in high amounts.
Referring back to the Heart study, however, researchers claim that participants who consumed up to 100 g of chocolate a day were at lower risk of stroke and heart disease. This is an amount the equivalent to more than two Hershey’s milk chocolate bars each day, which would take a person well above the recommended daily sugar intake of 25 g for woman and 37.5 g for men.
Can eating this amount of chocolate daily really be good for our health? Or has this study and many like it been overstated?
Are we succumbing to the media’s hype?
Looking at the results of the Heart study more closely, the average daily chocolate consumption of the almost 158,000 participants studied was 7 g, while only some of the participants consumed 100 g of chocolate each day.
However, the researchers claim that higher chocolate consumption – up to 100 g daily – was associated with a greater reduction in heart disease and stroke risk. But it should be noted that most of these participants were younger with a lower body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure, and they were less likely to have diabetes.
Many studies associating chocolate with health benefits are badly conducted, but many news outlets continue to report their findings.
“It is hard to know if the lower risk comes from chocolate or those other factors,” says Science Media Centre – a media watchdog based in the UK. “The authors have tried to account for these as far as possible, but the nature of the study means that it is not possible to do that perfectly. Therefore, it is possible that the protective effect might be because of something else – not chocolate.”
Despite this, the Internet was engulfed with media outlets claiming, “Two bars of chocolate a day ‘lowers risk of stroke and heart disease'” and “Two chocolate bars a day can SLASH the risk of heart attack and stroke.”
Could such media coverage be luring the general public into potentially false beliefs that chocolate consumption can have major health benefits?
Earlier this month, news outlets around the globe reported on a study conducted by Johannes Bohannon, PhD, research director of the Institute of Diet and Health, which claimed people who ate one chocolate bar a day alongside a low-carbohydrate diet lost weight 10% faster than controls.
As MNT revealed, however, the purpose of this study was to see how easy it would be to get badly conducted research into the news. Though the study was real, it was actually conducted by a journalist called John Bohannon, and the Institute of Diet and Health does not exist.
The study, which was published in the International Archives of Medicine and covered by news outlets including the Huffington Post and The Daily Mail, was hugely flawed. It contained only 16 participants who were only assessed for a 3-week period, meaning the findings were insignificant – factors that many news reporters failed to acknowledge.
“It was terrible science,” said Bohannon in an article he penned for website io9. “The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.”
Bohannon noted, however, that the general public were very critical of the findings, asking questions that should have been addressed by the reporting journalists. This suggests that many of us are not completely taken in by attention-grabbing headlines hailing the health benefits of chocolate.
However, this is not to say chocolate consumption offers no health benefits. Some well-conducted studies have found it could be good for us.
The potential health benefits
For years, numerous studies have associated moderate chocolate consumption with better heart health. As well as the most recent example published in Heart, in February 2014, MNT reported on a study linking daily consumption of dark chocolate to reduced risk of atherosclerosis – thickening and hardening of the arteries.
A study published in 2012, conducted by researchers from the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, found dark chocolate may benefit patients with advanced heart failure and type 2 diabetes by enhancing the structure of mitochondria – the “powerhouses” of cells – while another study found that cocoa products may help to lower blood pressure.
The heart health benefits of chocolate have been put down to the antioxidants it contains, which, as mentioned previously, are found in cocoa beans. High levels of antioxidants can reduce the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol that build up in artery walls, for example.
More and more studies are emerging in support of the heart health benefits of chocolate, particularly dark chocolate. However, increasingly, studies are suggesting there may be many more health benefits attached to the yummy treat.
In 2013, a study by researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, claimed drinking two cups of hot chocolate each day may stave off memory decline in older age by preserving blood flow in working areas of the brain.
And another study, published in the Journal of Agricultural Food and Chemistry in 2014, suggested a flavanol in cocoa – called oligomeric procyandins – may protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes.
While these studies suggest there may be additional perks to indulging in a chocolatey treat, it should be noted that they are not conclusive, and research is ongoing to determine exactly what health benefits chocolate offers.
What is conclusive, however, is that eating excessive amounts of chocolate – as tempting as it might be – can lead to weight gain, increasing our risk of overweight and obesity and associated conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
But this doesn’t mean we have to miss out. Like most foods high in sugar and fat, they can be consumed in moderation. As dietitian and spokesperson of the British Dietetic Association Alison Hornby says:
“As an occasional treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Eaten too frequently, it is an unhealthy choice.”
Written by Honor Whiteman