Posted on Mar 05, 2021, 4 p.m.
Love chocolate? Most of us do. It’s a delicious treat. Or a quick pick-me-up after a long day. You may have heard that dark chocolate has health benefits. But is that true or just wishful thinking?
Small studies suggest that cocoa, an ingredient in chocolate, may have health benefits. It’s possible that certain nutrients in cocoa could improve heart health and boost brain function, especially in older adults.
Researchers think this may be due to compounds called flavanols. Cocoa beans contain high levels of flavanols. The beans are dried and roasted to make the cocoa powder used in chocolate. Dark chocolate contains more cocoa and flavanols than other types of chocolate. Flavanols are also found in tea, red wine, apples, and berries.
The evidence linking cocoa beans and heart health has interesting origins. Much of it is based on studies of the Kuna people, who live on islands off the coast of Panama. They consume a lot of cocoa.
“They pull cocoa beans off the tree, they grind them up, and they basically make a hot chocolate,” explains Dr. Laura Baker, an expert in aging at Wake Forest University. “And they treat that like their water, drinking many, many cups per day.”
Scientists discovered that the Kuna people had much lower rates of heart disease, even compared to people in the same region. This sparked interest in the health properties of cocoa beans.
Today, researchers are studying whether concentrated doses of cocoa flavanols can improve health. Thousands of participants are involved in studies of how cocoa supplements affect everything from eye disease to heart health, cancer risk, and cognitive abilities.
Cocoa flavanols are believed to improve heart function and blood flow, so scientists think they may also benefit the tiny blood vessels in the brain. Baker is studying whether cocoa supplements can prevent cognitive decline in older adults. She’s examining their impacts on short-term memory, focus, and overall brain function.
More than 2,000 older adults have participated in the three-year study. But it’s too soon to tell whether cocoa supplements are beneficial for brain health. The study is still ongoing.
“If it works, there are no side effects for cocoa flavanols,” Baker notes. “So imagine, if this works for both heart health and cognition—or just one—this would be a very simple supplement that people could add to their diet.”
But you won’t get nearly the same amount of cocoa flavanols in that chocolate bar—even if it is dark chocolate.
“The cocoa supplements are way more potent than the darkest of the dark chocolate bars,” Baker says. Eating chocolate just isn’t the same, she explains.
And there’s more bitter news. Because of the added sugar and cocoa butter, chocolate contains a lot of calories and saturated fat. So it’s best to enjoy those Valentine’s Day chocolates in small amounts, as part of a balanced diet.
If you eat chocolate as a sweet treat, try to keep it as healthy as you can:
- Watch your total calories. Chocolate has a lot of calories, and gaining weight will more than wipe out any benefits you might get from the compounds in chocolate.
- Eat as dark a chocolate as you can.
- Avoid white and milk chocolates. These contain little or no cocoa.
- Make hot chocolate with unsweetened cocoa, water or non-fat milk, and little added sugar.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
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