Chocolate is a food that is loved and adored throughout the world. It provides comfort while imparting a delectable taste that makes one question its’ health promoting properties. Researchers had observed that the Kuna Indians of Central America consistently maintained a healthy blood pressure throughout their lives. They attributed this to the fact that they drank three to four cups of a chocolate drink per day. As such, chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, has been looked at for the purpose of promoting cardiovascular health. It is said that even a small drop in blood pressure in the hypertensive patient can bring forth positive changes in cardiovascular health.
Flavonols are the chemical compounds found in cocoa beans that catalyze the production of endothelial nitric oxide which is responsible for this decrease in blood pressure. These phytochemicals are found in plant based foods like apples, beans and tea in lower concentrations than is present in chocolate. The higher concentration of flavonols in chocolate imparts the medicinal properties associated with this food. Furthermore, the density of flavonols in chocolate products is dependent on the processing methods used. Naturally, dark chocolate is higher in flavonols than is milk chocolate.
A meta-analysis review of 20 different short term studies (approximately 2 weeks in duration) found a significant drop of 2 to 3 mm Hg in blood pressure. This decrease was noted only in individuals less than 50 years of age. The results of the studies are questionable due to their short duration. One study that included young healthy people found that consuming 8g of dark chocolate (>70% cocoa) over a month improved vascular functioning. In another review of the health benefits of chocolate a study lasting fifteen years was discussed. The afore-mentioned study involved men between the ages of 65 and 84 years of age and found those that consumed cocoa products regularly exhibited lower blood pressure. The authors of these reviews suggest longer term studies for the purpose of arriving to definitive conclusions on the health attributes of chocolate. It is also stated that many of these studies have been funded by producers of chocolate products which therefore causes one to question the positive findings
Improved cardiovascular health is only one of the benefits of consuming chocolate that is cited in scientific literature. Other benefits of chocolate consumption include, but are not limited to, relieving stress by increasing serotonin production, weight management and maintaining oral health. Despite evidence suggesting chocolate as a health promoting food, moderation in intake should still be exercised. A single serving of a dark chocolate bar every day should be enough to quell your chocolate cravings and promote wellness.
By: Jennifer M. Ephraim, RD, CSO, CNSC, CDN. Jennifer is a Sodexo Clinical Dietitian at Holy Cross Medical Center in New Jersey.