Posted on Aug 02, 2017, 8 a.m.
The science behind determining which types of chocolate, if any, are healthy.
Many people chow down on chocolate after lunch or dinner without thinking about its potential health benefits. The typical chocolate on store shelves is loaded with sugar, milk powder, cocoa, cocoa butter and artificial flavorings. Yet each chocolate has its own idiosyncratic ingredients. Certain types of chocolate are much healthier than others. Scientists have determined that what matters most is the type of cocoa in the chocolate.
A Shift in Perception
The popular sentiment regarding chocolate is that it is a guilty pleasure saved for the late night hours when one is craving something sweet and rich. Attitudes about chocolate started to slightly change in the late 90s after a Harvard University study was released. Harvard researchers performed an extensive study on the Kuna people located on an island near Panama. They found Kuna members enjoyed long lives, low blood pressure and low rates of heart attacks, cancer, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
The researchers determined the Kuna's amazing health was partially attributable to their high level of cocoa consumption. The typical Kuna member consumes more than five cups of cocoa each day. Numerous lab and clinical studies have confirmed the results of the Harvard study in the following years. Certain types of chocolate and cocoa clearly provide beneficial effects on markers of blood pressure, heart health and HDL cholesterol levels.
Why Cocoa Benefits Health
Flavanols are the key ingredient in cocoa that imparts health benefits. In particular, the compound of epicatechin is especially helpful. This is a potent antioxidant. It's behavior surprised scientists as it is not possible for the human body to absorb high concentrations of epicatechin for them to prove effective as an antioxidant. Rather, epicatechin function by way of numerous pathways in the human body, helping blood vessels relax. The result is decreased blood pressure, the generation of HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and the lending of support for the action of insulin. Researchers believe this occurs as epicatechin supports controlling pathways responsible for such biological effects.
Common Problems With Chocolate Consumption
Unfortunately, the majority of chocolate available for sale in candy stores across the world has minimal flavanols and epicatechin. Therefore, the typical chocolate does not provide significant health benefits. The chocolates used in research trials are rarely available in such stores. Furthermore, the positive results enjoyed by the Kuna could stem from the massive amounts of cocoa they enjoy rather than simply consuming cocoa. It is also worth noting the chocolate sold in mainstream shops has sugar, fat and energy content that doesn't meet the government's dietary recommendations.
Raw Cocoa is Spilling Into the Mainstream
It is clear chocolate and cocoa available in most stores lack enough epicatechin to benefit the heart. This is why there is a trend to go right to the source of the benefits: raw cocoa. Many health-conscious individuals are enjoying cold-pressed cocoa beans. This is the fruit of the tree known as Theobroma Cacao.
Cutting to the Truth
Plenty of claims are being made in regard to raw cocoa's potency and ability to boost health. Yet when the medical literature is examined, it is difficult to pinpoint studies that investigate raw cocoa's alleged effects reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease. The studies made use of cocoa or chocolate that is industrially produced and has more active compounds than natural cocoa.
Furthermore, the research is weakened by the fact that it was funded by industry power players. This means the chocolate used in such studies was carefully crafted for research purposes. Such chocolate is loaded with epicatechin's, making them quite different from the chocolate bars sold in the typical store.
So, although the research shows some interesting effects, chocolate does not really qualify as a "health food". It is not a good idea to consume commercially available chocolate strictly in an attempt to improve health.