Chocolate: Indulgence or Superfood? (Part 1)

March 30th, 2010

Chocolate is the favorite food of many people but it’s often viewed as an unhealthy indulgence. Despite this, more and more evidence is suggesting that chocolate provides a number of impressive health benefits. Is this too good to be true?

Surprisingly, there’s an overwhelming amount of research and opinion existing on chocolate and its potential to alter mood, cause intense cravings, and influence health. As such, there’s a lot of important information to discuss, but too much to include in one article, so this will be the first of three. This article will discuss the beneficial aspects of chocolate, the next one will consider if and how chocolate can detract from health, and the final article will include my opinion on whether chocolate is a so called superfood or just an indulgence as is commonly thought. In this last article, I’ll also share what my three favorite chocolates are as well as some important information regarding selection.

From Bean to Bar: The Origin of Chocolate

To understand the health implications of chocolate, it’s important to first be familiar with its origin. Chocolate is manufactured from cacao beans which are the seeds of the pods that grow on the Theobroma cacao tree. Each pod contains about 40 beans, and once the beans are harvested, they’re fermented to improve their flavor. Following fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted. By a process called winnowing, the shells of the beans are removed, and then the beans are milled and pressed. Milling produces chocolate liquor which is a mix of the beans’ solids and liquified fat. Despite the name, chocolate liquor has no association with alcohol. This is important to realize because chocolate liquor is often listed as an ingredient for a variety of chocolate products.

When chocolate liquor is pressed, it’s separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder, each of which are later recombined in various proportions and mixed with other ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, and milk powder to produce a final product. In some cases, cocoa powder is treated with an alkali, or “Dutched”, to give the chocolate a milder flavor and make it darker in appearance. This final mix is eventually molded into the bars and candies that we’re all familiar with, for better or worse.1

Can Chocolate Prevent Disease?

Although it would be a stretch to say that chocolate was a part our evolution, the consumption of cacao is believed to date back more than 3,000 years ago when the early Mayans are thought to have used cacao beans as part of a beverage.2 The idea of chocolate promoting good health isn’t new either. The Aztecs are documented to have used the cacao bean hundreds of years ago to treat a long list of medical conditions. This medicinal use of cacao was eventually adopted in Europe as well as other regions of the world.1

Evidence suggests that chocolate can help prevent heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. This has been supported by a traditional population of Kuna Indians that live on a small island off the coast of Panama named San Blas. The Kuna Indians are believed to consume more cocoa than any other community and drink a beverage derived from it as their primary source of fluid. Epidemiological evidence has shown the Kuna Indians to have significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes than those living on the mainland of Panama where the cocoa is of poorer quality and generally consumed in much smaller amounts. The Kuna Indians are also known for having optimally low blood pressure that doesn’t rise much with age.3,4 As can be seen from the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, it’s not at all surprising for a traditional culture that’s isolated from the stress, chemicals, and processed foods of modern society to enjoy much better health, but nonetheless, this still provides strong support for the potential health benefits of chocolate.

Such support has been found in other research as well. Out of a population of 471 elderly men studied over a duration of 15 years, those who consumed chocolate on a regular basis were shown to have lower blood pressure and reduced mortality. The reduction in mortality applied to heart disease alone as well as all causes of death combined.5 Although such a correlation doesn’t provide proof of cause and effect, it’s certainly a strong indication that should be considered further. Fortunately, it has been considered quite extensively.

Many of the disease preventing benefits associated with chocolate, including its high antioxidant capacity, are largely attributed to the large quantity of flavonoids it contains. Flavonoids represent a class of phytochemicals that are also found in some fruits, nuts, and vegetables. They’re also the reason for some of the health benefits commonly associated with red wine and especially green tea,1 but research suggests that chocolate can contain a significantly larger quantity of flavonoids and other beneficial plant nutrients than both red wine and green tea.6 Chocolate is also a notable source of the popular antioxidant resveratrol, but contains less than red wine and grape juice.7 Resveratrol is believed to help prevent heart disease and cancer, but is also a phytoestrogen which means that it can act as estrogen in the human body and potentially have undesirable effects.8

Chocolate is Very High in Antioxidants

Antioxidants are becoming a popular way of assessing the nutritional value of various supplements and foods. When a molecule loses an electron, in many cases to oxygen, it is said to have been oxidized. This loss of an electron causes the molecule to be charged and therefore more reactive. As such, it’s called a free radical. Because free radicals have the capacity to strip electrons from other molecules, they are often associated with cell damage and recognized as a potential health risk. Antioxidants are believed to reduce this damage by providing electrons to free radicals without becoming unstable free radicals themselves. Although it’s arguable that too much emphasis is placed on antioxidants and that there are circumstances in which free radicals are necessary for proper physiological function,9 it stands to reason that obtaining antioxidants from natural sources is beneficial.

Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is a popular method of measuring antioxidant capacity. Most people are aware that fruits are particularly high in antioxidant capacity, especially berries. According to 2007 USDA data, all of which is based on 100 gram serving sizes, cranberries have a very impressive average total ORAC score of 9,584. Blueberries also have an impressive score of 6,552 with blackberries not too far behind at 5,347. The score for raspberries and strawberries is 4,882 and 3,577 respectively. Primarily because of its exceptional flavonoid conent, dark chocolate has more than double the antioxidant capacity of any of these fruits with an average total ORAC score of 20,823! Cocoa powder is even higher at 80,933.10 Research has confirmed this potential benefit of chocolate by showing an increase in antioxidant capacity and a decrease in oxidation byproducts in those who consume it.11 Although it would be unwise to eat chocolate in place of fruits and vegetables, this is convincing support for the argument that chocololate may contribute to the benefits of a healthy diet.

Chocolate Can Reduce the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Arguably the most important health benefit associated with chocolate is its potential to reduce the risk of heart disease, and this is mostly attributed to the flavonoids it contains, particularly catechin and epicatechin. These flavonoids are believed to improve vascular function by increasing the availability of nitric oxide, and in turn, promoting the dilation or widening of blood vessels by causing the smooth muscle tissue surrounding them to relax. This can alleviate common circulatory conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease.12,13,14,15,16 In fact, research has shown that chocolate consumption can reduce blood pressure14,17,18,19,20, but other research supporting the vascular benefits of chocolate didn’t show any such change.13,21

Research has also shown chocolate to reduce blood clotting,21,22,23,24,25,26 decrease inflammation by reducing c-reactive protein levels,37 and modulate the immune response,26,27,28 all of which are important factors in cardiovascular disease. Chocolate has also been shown to improve resistance to oxidative DNA damage which may contribute to atherosclerosis.29

It can even be argued that chocolate can make you smarter and reduce the risk of strokes and cerebrovascular diseases such as dementia. Research has shown that its vascular benefits result in increased blood flow to brain,15,30 and an evaluation of 2031 elderly men and women found that those who consumed chocolate on a regular basis showed stronger cognitive performance.38

Chocolate and Diabetes

Because of the increased availability of nitric oxide that improves vascular function, chocolate consumption has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.17,20 This could be beneficial for anyone who is susceptible to blood sugar fluctuation or suffers from diabetes or insulin resistance. However, chocolate tends to also contain added sugar which can reduce or negate these benefits by causing high blood glucose levels and impairing the dilation of blood vessels.31,32

Chocolate and Cancer Prevention

The beneficial phytochemicals in plants are often associated with cancer prevention. In contrast, processed foods and sugar are often mentioned as potential causes of cancer. Although chocolate falls into both of these categories, preliminary research has shown that the flavonoids it contains can inhibit the growth of breast cancer33 and prostate cancer.34

Chocolate Can Promote Healthy Skin

Antioxidants help prevent the skin damage that can be caused by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Adequate consumption of fat and water can also prevent skin damage because they are essential components of the cell membrane and can improve and support the resilience of skin cells. Good circulation can also contribute to skin health by supplying skin cells with more water and nutrients. In addition to protecting the skin, each of these factors can also improve its quality and appearance.

Chocolate is a good source of both antioxidants and fat and can also improve circulation. As such, it’s not surprising that it’s been shown to improve the skin’s resistance to ultraviolet radiation while also improving its texture, thickness, quality, and general appearance.35,36

Is Chocolate a Forbidden Superfood?

Despite chocolate’s reputation as a forbidden pleasure, its impressive benefits give it the characteristics of a superfood. However, before you use this as justification to eat chocolate without restraint, keep in mind that there’s more to consider. Chocolate contains substances that can impair digestion, cause toxicity, and alter mood. Although some people regard the potential for chocolate to provide a temporary lift in mood and energy as a benefit, the long term effects of this can be much less desirable. In addition to these unfavorable characteristics, there are many factors that dictate the quality of chocolate, and this can have a significant influence on the extent of its benefits. All of this is discussed in much more detail in part two and part three of this article.

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