The average American eats over 12 pounds of it each year. The average Swiss eats about 22 pounds. What are we talking about? Chocolate, of course!
A Modern Marvels episode that originally aired in 2007 offered a whirlwind tour of the history of chocolate and featured a doctor commenting on the health benefits of dark chocolate—chocolate containing 60% or more chocolate liquor plus any added cocoa butter.
Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale Prevention Research Center had this to say at the time:
“There’s more and more evidence of late that dark chocolate is one of those rare foods that is a great indulgence that’s actually good for us. Dark chocolate is the most concentrated source of antioxidants readily available to us in our diets—more concentrated than green tea, more concentrated than virtually all fruits and vegetables. And in particular, the family of antioxidants concentrated in dark chocolate—called flavonoids—are associated with reduced risk of heart disease, reduced risk of injury to blood vessels, reduced risk of diabetes, reduced risk of stroke, reduced risk of cancer.”
“And there are chemicals in chocolate that likely improve mood as well. One of the likely candidates is an amino acid called tryptophan which is the precursor to a chemical in the brain called serotonin, which enhances mood.”
Since that time, more research has been done. Recent reports in prestigious scientific journals have offered chocophiles (lovers of chocolate) the best health-related news they’ve heard in years. According to the research, dark chocolate really is good for you. One study showed that test subjects who ate dark chocolate daily saw a significant drop in their blood pressure (5 points systolic and 2 points diastolic), while subjects who ate similar amounts of milk chocolate or white chocolate did not.
While this sounds like magic, it really isn’t. Chocolate is, after all, derived from plants (cocoa beans), and thus shares one of the nutritional benefits of other dark vegetables–-flavonoids. Dark chocolate contains high amounts of catechins (8 times the amount in strawberries), a branch of the flavonoid family that has been proven to be an effective antioxidant. Antioxidants help to fight the effects of aging by reducing the number of free radicals that increase oxidation and thus contribute to the development of many damaging conditions, including heart disease. Catechins also have the benefit of stimulating the production of endorphins (which provide a feeling of pleasure) and serotonin (which acts as a natural anti-depressant). Other studies indicate that dark chocolate can improve blood flow to the brain, thus lessening the possibility of stroke.
So the idea that dark chocolate can actually be good for you is true, within reasonable limits. The overall health benefit of eating dark chocolate is characterized by the authors of most of these studies as “moderate,” and must be balanced by the knowledge that chocolate is still full of calories. The sugar and fat present in chocolate mean that one 100-gram bar contains over 500 calories. If you’re on a limited-calorie diet, eating a whole bar is going to either blow your diet or require you to forgo other foods to compensate for your medicinal chocolate indulgence.
Fortunately, large quantities are not required to benefit from flavonoid-rich dark chocolate. In studies where the subjects ate a small-to-moderate amount of dark chocolate, benefits were still seen. For example, in one of the studies that showed significant reductions of blood pressure as a result of adding dark chocolate to participants’ diets, the subjects were limited to 30 chocolate calories a day. That’s a portion about the size of one Hershey’s Kiss.
So although the benefits of eating dark chocolate appear to be real, and are good news both to the health conscious and to chocophiles all over the world, remember that a little goes a long way, and too much will still make you fat. No matter how tempting it may be, don’t replace other foods in your balanced diet with dark chocolate; just add small amounts here and there and remember that moderation is always key!
As Dr. Katz mentioned about eight years ago in that Modern Marvels episode, “Too much of even a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. And we know in medicine that the dose makes the poison. And chocolate for all its beneficial health effects is a concentrated source of calories.”