The benefits of pure cocoa have been coming to light in the past couple of years. Mounting evidence suggests cocoa, which contains contains a high level of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin has protective cardiovascular benefits. For people who need to control their sugar and fat intake chocolate is often out of reach.
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"Even consuming a relatively small amount of chocolate had quite a large impact on stroke risk," lead investigator Dr Susanna Larsson (National Institute of Environmental Medicine, Stockholm, Sweden) said in a news release. "But women reporting the highest amount of chocolate consumption [66.5 g]—equivalent to about two chocolate bars a week—had a significantly reduced risk of stroke, suggesting that higher intakes are necessary for a potentially protective effect."
Larsson SC, Virtamo J, and Wolk A. Chocolate consumption and risk of stroke in women. J Am Coll Cardiol 2011; 58:1828-1829.
“Of the seven studies, five trials reported a significant inverse association between chocolate intake and cardiometabolic disorders. For example, individual studies showed reductions in the risk of coronary heart disease (odds ratio 0.43; 95% CI 0.27-0.68), the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality (relative risk [RR] 0.50; 95% CI 0.32- 0.78), and the risk of incident diabetes in men (hazard ratio 0.65; 95% CI 0.43-0.97). These favorable effects seem mainly mediated by the high content of polyphenols present in cocoa products and are probably accrued through the increasing bioavailability of nitric oxide, which subsequently might lead to improvements in endothelial function, reductions in platelet function, and additional beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood lipids," conclude Buitrago-Lopez and colleagues.”
Buitrago-Lopez A, Sanderson J, Johnson L, et al. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2011; DOI:10.1136/bmj.d4488.
“A new study has found that the cocoa in dark chocolate could help to prevent diabetes and improve the health of blood vessels, as well as reducing cholesterol levels and blood pressure . However, the researchers claim that the benefits gained from the cocoa can be offset by the problems from eating chocolate, such as weight gain .”
“The study, which focused mostly on sugar-free dark chocolate, examined the effects of polyphenolic flavonoids present in cocoa, finding that levels of bad cholesterol were reduced in people under 50, while levels of good cholesterol increased.”
“A key reason chocolate has so many health benefits is that it is rich in flavonoids, which are naturally occurring substances found in plants that can provide a serious boost in antioxidant action for you.”
“Scientists believe when we eat plant foods (luscious dark chocolate comes from the cacao plant) rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, their benefits are passed on to us. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules thought to be responsible for aging and some diseases. “When you have too many free radicals in your body, they start to attack your cells, and that can lead, over time, to low-grade inflammation and to some diseases — cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s,” DuBost says.”
Among dark chocolate’s most researched benefit is its role in preventing heart disease. British researchers analyzed seven studies on chocolate and cardiovascular health involving more than 114,000 people in the United States, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden and found that people who ate more chocolate significantly reduced their risk for heart disease. Researchers concluded that people who ate the most chocolate weekly had a 37 percent lower risk of any heart disease than those who ate the least amounts of dark chocolate.
A recent study by Swedish researchers found that women who ate high amounts of chocolate — about two candy bars per week — had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke. In a similar study, British researchers also found that people who ate more chocolate were 30 percent less likely to have a stroke. However, researchers added that more study is needed to determine the exact amount and types of flavonoid-rich chocolates that would be most help lessen stroke risk.
Dark chocolate is also being touted as a cholesterol-lowering superfood. It’s the cocoa butter that does the trick, DuBost explains. Cocoa butter contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat — the same fat you find in heart-healthy olive oil. Scientists believe that this monounsaturated fat can actually raise your HDL, or good, cholesterol. However, DuBost says, many of the studies on chocolate and good cholesterol are short-term, and it may be premature to say that chocolate is a cholesterol cure-all.
A German study of the diets of more than 19,000 people found that eating chocolate may help lower blood pressure, and in turn, cardiovascular disease risk. A widespread analysis of numerous studies on the topic conducted by Australian researchers also found limited but noticeable blood pressure benefits from eating the superfood. Again, very few studies pinpoint the exact amount of dark chocolate or flavonoids needed to get this effect, and more scientific study is needed.
Dark chocolate may have something in common with carrots: Researchers from the University of Reading in England tested the eyesight of 30 healthy adults, 18 to 25 years old, after they ate white and dark chocolates. The subjects performed better on vision tests after eating the dark chocolate. It could be that the flavanols in dark chocolate, which improve blood flow to the brain, improve blood flow to the retina as well — and white chocolate doesn’t have nearly the same amount of flavanols as dark chocolate.
No, it’s not your imagination; some research supports the idea that chocolate really can boost your mood. It’s the fatty acids that do the trick, and dark chocolate contains two saturated fatty acids — palmitic and stearic acids — in addition to its health-boosting flavonoids. More research needs to be done, DuBost says, but studies have found that chocolate in particular can make you feel happier and improve your mood. The theory is that chocolate stimulates the neural activity in the regions of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, she says.
Evidence that dark chocolate may play a role in cancer prevention is limited but growing. Some preliminary studies on three continents — Europe, Asia, and North America — have shown that people who eat many flavonoids or a lot of antioxidant-rich chocolate develop fewer cancers than those who don’t consume them. Of the many flavonoids in chocolate, two in particular, epicatechin and quercetin, are believed to be responsible for the cancer-fighting properties.
As if the other benefits weren’t enough, a Harvard University study found that one or two doses of dark chocolate per week could even help you live longer. In the study, researchers compared men who ate chocolate with those who didn’t and found that the former group lived one year longer. More research is still being conducted to determine the exact role chocolate plays in longevity.