The Health Benefits of Chocolate!
Chocolate... there aren’t many people who don’t love it. Well when I read that new research has shown it might not have to be such a guilty pleasure I was keen to find out more!
Studies have shown that dark chocolate and cocoa in moderation have the potential to lower blood pressure, which could mean it has the ability to lower the number of heart attacks and strokes, as well as other blood pressure related diseases. Dark chocolate and good quality cocoa contain substances called flavonoids which are thought to be the magic ingredient responsible for the beneficial effect on blood pressure. Unfortunately milk chocolate contains much less cocoa than dark chocolate and so would be unlikely to help, and white chocolate contains no cocoa at all, but swapping your milk or white chocolate intake for a square or two of dark chocolate or a hot cup of cocoa is no real hardship and there really is some amazing flavours of dark chocolate readily available in your supermarket.
Interest in cocoa first started in the 1940s (1) when it was found that the Kuna Indians living on an island just off Panama in Central America had unusually low blood pressure, but that when they migrated to the mainland, their blood pressure rose. The scientists looked into why this could be and realised it was likely to be down to lifestyle factors. Further research showed that the island dwelling inhabitants consumed ten times more cocoa products than the mainlanders and were also found to have much higher levels of flavonoids in their urine, and so interest in the health properties of cocoa started growing (2).
A big review of multiple studies (3) was carried out in 2017 looking at the impact cocoa can have on blood pressure. During these trials people were either given a cocoa drink or between 6-100g of dark chocolate (that’s about half a square to a whole 100g bar); or they received a placebo each day which didn’t contain cocoa. It was found that there was an average 2 mmHg reduction in blood pressure in the participants receiving the cocoa containing product over a 2 to 18 week period. That’s not a huge reduction but if your blood pressure is up only a bit this could be a simple change to your diet which in combination with other changes could make a significant difference. Of course it is possible that there might have been a further reduction in blood pressure if the trials were done over a longer time period, we don’t know. The cocoa seemed to help lower blood pressure the greatest in people who already had raised blood pressure at the start of the trial. Scientists think that cocoa works to reduce blood pressure by increasing the production of nitric oxide which causes blood vessels to relax and this in turn lowers blood pressure.
Unfortunately the amount of flavonoids wont be listed on the ingredients of your hot cocoa or chocolate bar, but the percentage of cocoa solids should be listed and it’s these solids which contain the flavonoids. Look for the highest percentage of cocoa solids you can, ideally at least 70% and the higher number the better. Remember that the benefits of the cocoa needs to be balanced with the amount of calories it contains, so it’s probably best not to eat an entire bar of dark chocolate each day, just stick for a square or two! Good news is though that unlike dogs which, as most dog owners know (and may well have had the horrible emergency vet experience of!), can be poisoned by eating just 50 grams of dark chocolate (4), humans would need to consume approximately 4 and a half kilograms of dark chocolate to be poisoned and even for the most hardened chocolate addict that’s a lot of chocolate to eat!
Dark chocolate is also a surprising source of iron, containing over 11mg in 100g (the recommended daily intake of iron in the UK is 8.7mg for women over 50 and men, and 14.8mg for women aged between 18 and 50 years old). It also contains copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus which are all needed in small quantities by the body. Again just remember that like nuts which also have huge health benefits, dark chocolate is also high in calories so you need to watch your intake and limit it only to 1 to 2 small squares a day.
So a square or two of dark chocolate or a cup of cocoa probably does have some health benefits - just don't over do it! If you don’t like dark chocolate there are ways to incorporate it into your diet, why not give the dipped strawberries a go or grate some over the top of a bowl of fruit - one of your five a day and chocolate, what’s to lose?!
(1) Kean. The BP of the Kuna Indians. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 1944 (24): 341
(2) McCullough. Hypertension, the Kuna, and the epidemiology of flavanols. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology 2006; 47 supp 2 103-9
(3) Ried, Fakler & Stocks. Effect of Cocoa on Blood Pressure. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017 (4): CD008893
(4) Rusconi et al. Theobroma cacoa L., the Food of the Gods: a scientific approach beyond myths and claims. Pharmacological Research 2010; 61 (1): 5-13