Dark chocolate looking healthier

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2008

The past year was a good one for chocolate lovers who need to justify their sweet indulgence. Studies a decade ago hinted at the heart-healthy and blood-pressure-lowering effects of dark chocolate. Scientists were right about that and they are discovering even more health benefits.

Most of the research has focused on chocolate's flavonoids, chemicals that are found in all plant foods and that number in the thousands. Two effects of these nutrients excite the most interest. They relax blood vessels, which probably accounts for their effect on blood pressure and they make blood less likely to clot. Theoretically, these and chocolate's other benefits should give chocolate lovers a lower risk of heart attack and stroke but so far there are only a few studies on humans that bear this out.

Chocolate could even help persons with diabetes. At 150 calories per ounce and considered a candy for generations, chocolate doesn't sound like health food. Those preconceptions didn't deter a group of Italian scientists who found that dark chocolate — but not white chocolate, which has no cocoa — improved insulin activity in normal and diabetic persons.

Imaging studies show that chocolate improves blood flow to the brain in women and that it affects different parts of the brain than it does in men. That probably doesn't come as any surprise to the ladies, about 90 percent of whom have chocolate cravings, and it might explain why some men don't relate to women's desire for chocolate. Only about 60 percent of men admit to having chocolate cravings.

Among persons who are self-identified chocolate cravers, even the sight of chocolate causes the brain to respond differently than the brains of non-cravers. Such findings have piqued the interest of research psychologists who are exploring how chocolate affects the brain. Every ounce of dark chocolate contains thousands of chemicals. Some act like opiates and others work like caffeine.

None of this has escaped the attention of the world's chocolatiers as they find new ways to appeal to health-conscious consumers. One problem that they face is that the process of converting dark chocolate to milk chocolate removes the heart-healthy factors; adding sugar and fat makes it junk food. By adding more flavonoids to dark chocolate, food chemists hope to come up with a product that will make hearts and brains work better and last longer. Hershey, Mars and a host of others market bars that contain high levels of flavonoids, similar to those used in research studies.

As interest in chocolate soars, growers are breeding varieties of chocolate that, like fine wines, appeal to sophisticated tastes. Depending on differences in soil and climate, as well as the varieties of chocolate trees, flavor and flavonoid content can vary considerably. Chocolate lovers search out their favorites, called single-origin chocolate, from different regions of the world, even single plantations that claim to have unique flavor characteristics.

Dark chocolate has a downside: lots of calories. The 3 ½ ounce portions used in some blood pressure studies contain 500 calories. The good news is that even 1 ½ ounces a day appear to be heart-healthy — provided that you choose a brand that has little or no sugar and little added fat.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.