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Is Dark Chocolate a Healthy Food?

Is dark chocolate healthy?
Is dark chocolate healthy?

For more than 25 years, news articles have been talking about the health benefits of dark chocolate. In fact, after going through some of the available research, I wrote an article in 2008 about the benefits of cocoa. There are several compelling studies showing that small amounts of the flavonoids found in some cocoas can significantly reduce the number of heart attacks people experience.

There's just one catch. The heart-healthy benefits quickly fade if you eat bars that are higher in sugar, fat and calories. To demonstrate a “healthier” dose of chocolate, I gave this example in my article.

So how much cocoa were they eating of drinking? Just 4 grams of cocoa a day. That's about how much you'll find in two chocolate Hershey's Kisses.”

That “dosage” information was quickly passed over and forgotten. Just two chocolate Kisses? Who eats that little? People just remembered that dark chocolate or cocoa can be healthy. So they grabbed a full-sized chocolate bar and ate without worry. In fact, there's a lot to worry about. It's a combination of industry-funded research, clever misleading marketing and willful ignorance from the buying public.

The research part began quite simply. Over the past 30 years, companies like Barry Callebaut, Hershey's, Mars and Nestle have invested millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants on the benefits of cocoa. Since the research is privately funded, studies were designed to show the maximum benefit of cocoa consumption. Any studies that show problems, don't have to be released. Because remember, it's privately funded.

When VOX Media analyzed 100 studies funded by the Mars company, they found 98% reported positive results. Only 2% were neutral or negative. That creates a bias of information available for science and health writers. Most of the articles focus on the same limited range of information, how cocoa can help reduce stress and decrease the risk of a heart attack. What's missing from all those positive studies are comparisons of what researchers gave subjects, versus what people were actually eating.

In many studies, subjects were given unsweetened cocoa, not processed dark chocolate in the form of candy bars. There were no studies comparing the mood-altering benefits of chocolate with mindful meditation or other relaxation techniques. There were no studies giving subjects a chocolate bar a day to see if they did better than anyone who avoided those chocolate indulgences. Studies comparing bits of chocolate to other healthy food options are almost entirely absent.

What the chocolate buying public got from all those studies were headlines that screamed “7 Proven Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate” and “Why Dark Chocolate is the Healthiest Chocolate.” Companies that sell chocolate bars ramped up their marketing to talk about the percentage of cocoa that appeared in their bars. The bars were promoted as healthy options and people believed it was a guilt-free food.

Ghirardelli 86% Cocoa Endangered Species 72% Cocoa Alter Eco Deep Dark 70% Cocoa

Extra Dark Lily's 70% Dark Chocolate BarTheo Organic Fair Trade 85% Dark Chocolate Lindt Excellence 95% Cocoa

The reality isn't nearly as nice. I decided to pick up a few dark chocolate bars and see what they have in them. Six typical bars I picked up range from 70% to 95% cocoa and average 448 calories each. The amount of sugar varies wildly, from 2 grams per bar to as much as 24. Eat just one bar a day and you'll put on almost a full pound of weight a week. That is not a healthy option.

There is an alternative. Instead of a chocolate bar, use cocoa instead. One tablespoon of cocoa (we used Hershey's Cocoa Special Dark) has only 10 calories, 2 grams of healthy fiber, no sugar and only half a gram of fat. If you drink coffee in the morning, put a tablespoon of dark cocoa in your cup and mix in a low-calorie sweetener like Splenda or stevia. You get a tasty morning mocha drink with all the potential benefits of cocoa and none of the excess sugar and calories found in a chocolate bar.

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In studies, cocoa flavanols have been found to lower blood pressure and arterial stiffness as much as some blood pressure medication. However, doctors didn't know what would happen if people STARTED OUT with low blood pressure.

In this study, they found that when people started out low, the cocoa flavanols didn't lower it any further. That's great news for anyone taking cocoa flavanols, because it can help, without causing someone to crash.

Assessing Variability in Vascular Response to Cocoa With Personal Devices: A Series of Double-Blind Randomized Crossover n-of-1 Trials

Mariam Bapir, Paola Campagnolo, Ana Rodriguez-Mateos, Simon S. Skene and Christian Heiss
Frontiers in Nutrition, 13 June 2022 Sec. Nutrition and Metabolism https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.88659

Click Here for the Study

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Updated 8/31/2022