Beatrice Golomb’s latest paper reporting that regular chocolate eaters have lower body mass indexes, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, has (not surprisingly) generated international headlines. The physician-scientist has been interviewed by media from around the world, from the Huffington Post and The BBC to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
To be sure, the healthful effects of chocolate aren’t exactly news. Dr. Golomb’s work builds upon a happily accumulating mound of scholarly work. To wit:
- A 2011 study in the Chemistry Central Journal reports that dark chocolate is richer in antioxidants than juices from blueberries, cranberries and other so-called “superfruits.” Antioxidants are substances that protect cells from damage caused by molecular “free radicals,” which have been linked to heart disease, cancer and other ailments. The research, it should be noted, was conducted by scientists at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition.
- A 2009 University of Oxford study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that elderly men and women performed better on cognitive tests if they consumed flavanoid-rich chocolate, wine and/or tea.
- A 2008 University of Illinois study, also published in the Journal of Nutrition, reported that daily consumption of dark chocolate reduced cholesterol levels among study participants.
- A 2008 Norwich Medical School study in the United Kingdom, which combined the results of 42 smaller clinical studies, found that dark chocolate consumption among 1,300 participants slightly reduced blood pressure and insulin levels, and produced small improvements in blood vessel function. Maintaining low blood pressure decreases a person’s chance of developing cardiovascular disease. The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- A 2008 study of Catholic University in Campobasso, Italy found that people who ate a small amount of dark chocolate daily had lower levels of a blood protein associated with inflammation, a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- A 2007 University of Sussex study found that melting chocolate in one’s mouth boosted brain activity and heart rate more intensely than passionate kissing. The effect also lasted four times longer.
- A 2005 German study found that phytochemicals known as flavanols, which are abundant in chocolate, fruits and vegetables, boost nitric oxide levels in the blood of smokers, reversing some of the smoking-related impairment in blood vessel function.
Breaking down the bean
Chocolate is derived from the beans of the cacao tree, which in their natural, unprocessed state are bitter and astringent. They’re also notably rich in nutrients, minerals and other healthful elements.
Dark chocolate (which has the highest concentrations of the cacao bean) is 10-15 percent protein by weight. Cocoa butter contains a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats, making up about 50 percent of the beans’ mass. Much of the saturated fat in the butter comes in the form of stearic acid, which is converted to oleic acid by the body, which is associated with keeping cell membranes soft and reducing blood pressure levels.
Chocolate is high in the minerals copper and iron. Copper is used by the body for enzyme activity, iron absorption and glucose metabolism. Iron is a key constituent of red blood cells.
Chocolate has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any food: 12 to 18 percent of the beans’ total weight.
There are also several substances that affect the human nervous system in chocolate. The most common is caffeine, though it is a fraction of what’s found in the coffee bean. Another psychoactive is theobromine, which occurs at 10 times the level of caffeine, but is a much weaker stimulant. (Theobromine is the substance that makes chocolate consumption dangerous to dogs, cats and other animals. They metabolize the akyloid much more slowly, resulting in accumulated poisoning that can result in death.)
The health benefits of chocolate: It’s not dark and white
If the latest report of chocolate’s healthfulness has you rushing out for a bar, remember not all chocolates are created equal. Much depends on the type of chocolate and the amount of post-harvest processing.
The more processing, the less healthy the chocolate will likely be. Organic cocoa products typically preserve higher natural high levels of healthy elements like flavanols. Dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate. White chocolate is a confectionary derivative of chocolate, and does not contain any cocoa solids. Thus, it does not contain flavanols or any antioxidative properties.
Finally, chocolate’s health benefits are measured modestly. In most studies, healthy consumption of chocolate was found limited to just a few grams per day – a tiny fraction of a typical candy bar. For all of its benefits, chocolate is high in calories and fats. A serving of nine Hershey’s dark chocolate kisses, for example, contains 230 calories, 117 from fat. Total fat is 13 grams, or 20 percent of the recommended daily value. Eight of those 13 grams are saturated fat.