Healthy Chocolate: Too Good To Be True?
Chocolate, which is well-known for its high calorie count and fat content, is by no means considered a health food. But as it turns out, it is also been unfairly blamed for a variety of health problems. For example, eating chocolate was thought to cause the development and worsening of acne. But studies have shown that there is no link between chocolate and acne.
Many people also assume chocolate contains a great deal of caffeine, but this really depends on the type of chocolate. An average size milk chocolate bar can contain about 10 milligrams (mg) of caffeine. This is more caffeine than what is found in a cup of decaffeinated coffee (about 5 mg), but less than what is found in regular coffee (102-200 mg). A dark chocolate bar, though, can contain around 30 mg of caffeine.
Chocolate is a complicated substance with over 300 known chemicals. Some of the most promising ingredients found in cocoa and chocolate products are substances called flavonoids. These natural antioxidants are found in plants, including cocoa beans, fruits, vegetables, tea, and red wine. Antioxidants are important because they keep the body’s free radicals in balance. It is thought that too many free radicals play a role in the development of cancer, heart disease, and many other conditions.
Research on chocolate has shown promise. Dark chocolate, which is rich in flavonoids, may help to lower blood pressure in people who have mild hypertension. Flavonoids may also play a role in improving people's cholesterol levels, as well as improving the health of blood vessels in those who have cardiovascular disease. Some research has also linked eating chocolate to decreased risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
All chocolate comes from the cocoa bean. It is the cocoa butter found in the beans that is the natural source of fat found in chocolate. Since cocoa butter is a vegetable fat, it contains no cholesterol. Milk chocolate, the most popular type of chocolate, contains milk fat in addition to cocoa butter. For this reason, dark chocolate or cocoa powder is considered a healthier alternative. Choose a dark chocolate with 65% cocoa or more, and limit yourself to three ounces per day (this is the amount some studies have found to be helpful).
You may be concerned about adverse health effects from eating a food that contains fat and sugar. Chocolate contains a type of fat called stearic acid. Stearic acid is a saturated fat—the type that would normally be expected to raise blood cholesterol levels in the body. However, for reasons not yet entirely understood, stearic acid does not appear to have this effect. Milk chocolate also contains milk fat, so it may cause more of the negative effects you would expect from eating a high-fat food.
Despite the good news on the heart health front, certain facts cannot be ignored! Chocolate contains considerable fat, which packs far more calories than carbohydrates or protein. A 1.4-ounce chocolate bar contains 210 calories, which is a significant contribution to a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. And too many calories and not enough exercise can lead to weight gain and health problems. So, while we can all feel a bit less guilty when we do occasionally indulge, moderation is the key.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
American Heart Association
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Dietiticans of Canada
Acne. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated August 27, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Caffeine content of food & drugs. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/new/cafchart.htm. Updated September 2007. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Chocolate. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Lotito SB. Good news about chocolate. Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute website. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/ss02/chocolate.html. Accessed September 12, 2012.
Zeratsky K. Can chocolate be good for my health? Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-chocolate/AN02060. Updated February 4, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
10/14/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/: Buitrago-Lopez A, Sanderson J, Johnson L, et al. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2011 Aug 26;343:d4488.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian Randall, MD