Recent interest in the health benefits of chocolate was sparked by studies on the cocoa-drinking peoples of Central America.
Researchers observed that the Kuna Indians of Panama, who drank cocoa as their main beverage, had very low blood pressure, a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.
Chocolate is the processed and sweetened food produced from cocoa. Brand experts have sought to associate chocolate, and in particular dark chocolate, with the supposed health benefits of cocoa, which include protection against cancer and stress relief.
We’ve teamed up with the British Dietetic Association (BDA) to examine whether the health claims made about chocolate are supported by the evidence.
Chocolate is made with cocoa. Cocoa is a good source of iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous and zinc. It also contains the antioxidants catechins and procyanidins
A well-conducted 2012 review of the best available evidence on the effects of chocolate on blood pressure concluded that cocoa products – including dark chocolate – may help to slightly lower blood pressure. However, most of the studies were of short duration (between two and eight weeks) and there were some weaknesses in the available research. The authors of the review say longer term trials are needed to further our understanding of cocoa’s effect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health.
Some limited animal and laboratory research suggests a cocoa-rich diet could offer protection against bowel cancer. However, it’s impossible to conclude from research carried out in a laboratory that cocoa can protect people against bowel cancer.
In a small study from 2009, 30 healthy people who were given 40g of dark chocolate a day for 14 days experienced a reduction in stress hormones. However, the study, which was funded by a major chocolate manufacturer, had several limitations, including its short study period, and does not provide any evidence that chocolate has any benefits or effects on stress.
The dietitian’s verdict
Alison Hornby, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson, says it’s important to remember that the studies on the health benefits of chocolate have focused on cocoa extracts, not chocolate.
She says: “A range of health benefits from the consumption of cocoa products have been investigated, particularly in relation to cardiovascular disease, with early results showing promise.
“However, the potential health benefit of some compounds in the chocolate have to be weighed against the fact that to make chocolate, cocoa is combined with sugar and fat.
“This means chocolate is an energy-dense food that could contribute to weight gain and a higher risk of disease. As an occasional treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Eaten too frequently, it is an unhealthy choice.”
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