People love chocolate. Three words that may not *technically* be a proven scientific fact, but are, at least in my own opinion, pretty valid for those living in today’s society. It is a line that I know I hear, and even find myself saying, quite often: someone is sad or feeling down and the response comes to “get them some chocolate and they will definitely feel so much better!” What I think people often forget is that chocolate truly does have a number of health benefits, dating back to its start and discovery and leading its way into the current society that we live in. Of the many health benefits that the consumption of chocolate has been linked to in both the past and present, I would like to briefly examine its use as a positive health benefit in the past and then relate that to my main focus on our current society, where chocolate has certainly taken the name to have medical benefits that continue to grow and become more supported through scientific evidence and research.
While discussing the past and present findings and beliefs on the medical benefits of chocolate, I also hope to draw conclusions of my own on the matter based on the evidence and research that is currently available. I think this topic is certainly one where all the facts and pieces of evidence need to be considered before a conclusion can be drawn.
Chocolate consumption has been associated with medicinal benefits for several years. In an article written by Donatella Lippi, she talks about how the evidence of cacao that was used for medicinal purposes dates far back to Mesoamerican civilizations (Lippi). Looking back to the past, there were notions presented on how chocolate refreshes and satisfies the body (Coe and Coe, p. 110). The Coes also talk about how texts dating back to the 1500’s showed how the Emperor had a process of keeping botanical plants to experiment with, having the hopes of finding some sort of medical connection among them. Eventually, cacao appeared as one of the successful ones, showing that it could cure infections, control cough, and lower fevers among other things (Coe and Coe). The Mesoamericans spoke of chocolate as if it were a “food of the Gods” (Martin, Lecture). For this reason, chocolate was often times included in traditional Mesoamerican rituals. Mayan documents, often written in Dresden Codex, showed cacao being depicted by Gods during ritual activities, including marriage and death rituals (Coe and Coe, 41). Additionally, Donatella Lippi went on to talk about
chocolate as a Mesoamerican medicine and stated that it dates back to Montezuma and his high levels of chocolate beverage consumption in the hopes that he would remain as masculine as possible (Lippi, 2017). In general, Mesoamericans certainly recognized how cacao was a medical benefit, often believing that those who consumed chocolate would be able to live longer than those who were deprived of consuming the treat (Coe and Coe).
Through the readings and lectures we have gone over in class, we have also seen how the Spaniards and Europeans believed in chocolate and its overall positive effects on mood. In The True History of Chocolate, authors Sophie and Michael Coe state that the Spaniards thought that chocolate was a “a drug, a medicine” (Coe and Coe, p. 126). This idea focused on the fact that once the Europeans brought chocolate overseas, they linked it to humoral medicine as a drug and medicine (Coe and Coe).
The link between chocolate and its effects on health started in fairly general terms; however, eventually this evolved into a long stretch of scientific studies and research that really tried to examine the specifics between chocolate and its physical and mental health benefits. In the article “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food”, Donatella Lippi opens up by talking about how “throughout history, chocolate has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, and in recent years, multiple studies have found that chocolate can have positive health effects, providing evidence to a centuries-long established use” (Lippi, 2013). She then goes on to talk about how simply the belief of chocolate being linked to health was not enough; breaking it down to the properties of chocolate that allowed it to have positive health effects was key in understanding (Lippi, 2013). For example, dark chocolate is known to be rich in iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and flavanols (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). The flavanols are most important when it comes to the health benefits.
To open up and introduce this section, I would like to start off by proposing a question. I hope to draw some sort of conclusion on this question by the end of this blog post. Because the debate about chocolate’s actual health benefits continue to go back and forth and are still not completely determined, I think it is rather important to consider the following matters:
Is the idea that chocolate bars have positive health benefits for a person’s health really supported by actual research or is this just a bunch of hear-say with no scientific evidence to back it up? Is this claim something that people just have an idea about or is there actual proof to support its validity? What kinds of chocolate are best to consume in order to obtain these positive health benefits?
In today’s society, one thing that is essential to remember is that the link of chocolate to medical and health benefits primarily focuses on the dark chocolate variety, which contains at least sixty percent pure cacao and high levels of flavanol content, though it is noted that consumption for the purpose of health benefits should be focused on chocolate that has at least seventy percent pure cacao. Often times, this high level of flavanol content does cause the chocolate to be more bitter in taste (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). In an article written by Dr. Robert Shmerling, Faculty Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, he brings up this key point and notes that not all chocolate is the same. Dark chocolate is high in flavanol content while milk chocolate and white chocolate have much lower levels of flavanol (Shmerling, 2017). Additionally, it is important to note that “even a chocolate bar that is 70% cacao can have varying levels of flavonoid compounds, depending on how it was processed” (Storrs, 2017). Furthermore, author Carina Storrs comments that any kind of chocolate that goes through a chemical process known as “dutching” would basically lose all traces of flavonoid compounds; this frequently happens in Dutch chocolate (Storrs, 2017).
As seen in both of the figures above, “raw” chocolate decreases blood pressure and assists in the improvement of blood circulation in a person’s body. The graphic to the right lists out health benefits of dark chocolate, some of them including slowing signs of aging, reducing the risk of diabetes, and reducing stress levels. Additionally, Sophie and Michael Coe state that “dark chocolate does not cause diabetes, cavities, or acne”, which is something that people often times believe and is part of what allows people to link dark chocolate to having health benefits in general (Coe and Coe, 31). Furthermore, Sophie and Michael Coe say that there has been no direct correlation between developing heart disease and consuming chocolate (Coe and Coe, 30).
When considering the link between chocolate consumption and, specifically, brain health Dr. Robert Shmerling talks about how both short-term and long-term consumption of chocolate can be beneficial. In various completed research studies, it showed that adults who consumed dark chocolate with high flavanol content had better performances on tests of memory and reaction time (Shmerling). Studies have also found that chocolate can be a key provider of antioxidants that are beneficial for the body. Another article posted on the pros and cons of chocolate also states that “a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School found that older adults who drank two cups of liquid chocolate a day for 30 days had improved blood flow to the parts of their brain needed for memory and thinking” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). It seems that chocolate’s link to brain health mainly focuses on the ability of flavonoids to improve mental function and speaking ability. It is important to note, however, that there has not been any proven scientific research that shows that chocolate consumption can prevent dementia or other diseases that bring about a “mental decline”. Dr. Owais Khawaja, a cardiology fellow at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Ohio, says that “chocolate is a good antioxidant. It has a good effect on inflammation” (Storrs, 2017). Dr. Khawaja also states that some additional benefits as a result of chocolate’s anti-inflammatory properties include that it might help to reduce the risk of cancer and dementia.
In the video attached here, we can see a listing of the top ten benefits of dark chocolate on a person’s health and well-being. The video touches on the positive effects of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health, weight loss, and lowering levels of blood pressure, to name a few. In general from sources that are widely available, it does seem that dark chocolate has links to perhaps living a healthier lifestyle. Self-medication and stress relief are two additional items that dark chocolate has a link to when it comes to levels of improvement. Score!
As seen in the figure to the right, dark chocolate is the form of chocolate that is known to have health benefits. As noted in the figure (and stated previously), the pattern appears to be that a cacao content of over at least sixty percent in a given chocolate item is most beneficial for a person’s health. Additionally, I believe it is accurate to conclude that heart health seems to be the most commonly affected aspect of a person’s health benefits from chocolate consumption.
In an article published in Harvard Women’s Health Watch, it was stated that ingredients in chocolate can be healthy, but “the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). The three flavonoid compounds in chocolate that are known to help improve cardiovascular functions in the body are catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidin (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014). These flavonoid compounds assist with lowering cholesterol rates, reducing inflammation that may be present in the body, and preventing blood clots from occurring at all. Dr. Eric Ding, a scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has completed 24 studies on the effects of flavonoids in chocolate on cardiovascular risks. In his findings, it was reported that flavonoids in chocolate reduced blood pressure rates and levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol. Additionally, rates of healthy HDL cholesterol increased, while improved levels of blood flow and and lower levels of insulin resistance were also displayed (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014).
OKAY SO, WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS ACTUALLY MEAN?
After researching and seeing the scientific evidence that is available regarding chocolate and its effects on health, it is definitely shown that consuming the right kind of chocolate with the proper characteristics can have positive health benefits for a consumer. As with anything, intake moderation is definitely significant and rates of consumption should be exercised with caution. Monitoring levels of sugar intake (i.e. selecting chocolate bars with lower levels of sugar added) is certainly important in order to limit any adverse health effects from taking place on the body. Additionally, people should proceed with caution when depending on chocolate (of the dark variety, of course!) to lower health risks. The public should recognize that researchers have been able to confirm that chocolate does have short-term benefits on heart health and other health issues but, for example, as stated by Dr. Eric Ding, “the jury is still out in terms of actual direct heart attack prevention” (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2014).
THE FINAL VERDICT…
So, what do I think as a result of all of this? I do believe that chocolate can have positive health effects on the body. It is important to limit intake (eating ten chocolate bars a day is still not a good idea, sorry!) and mainly consuming dark chocolate is best due to the fact that it contains the highest percentages of pure cacao. Additionally, choosing chocolate bars that are also low in sugar and fats is very important, as these two things can actually cause adverse health effects as I am sure we all know.
Some scientists have recommended that the best way to get the health advantages of the flavonoids in chocolate without consuming all the negative elements as well is to purchase chocolate products that are more concentrated, such as cocoa supplements.
If consumed properly, and in moderate levels, chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, does have positive health effects on a person’s health including the improvement of cardiovascular health, decreased levels of stress, and more. I know I will definitely continue eating chocolate – it is just time that I make the switch over to dark chocolate more often.
“Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat – Harvard Health.” Harvard Health Blog,
Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Feb. 2014. Web.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames
and Hudson, 2013. Print.
“Dark Chocolate.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Nutrients, 5 May
2013, pp. 1573-1584., doi: 10.3390/nu5051573. Web.
Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Lecture 7: Modern Day
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods”. Harvard University, AAAS
E-119. Cambridge, MA. Lecture.
Schmerling, Robert H. “Your Brain on Chocolate.” Harvard Health Publishing. 16 Aug.
Storrs, Carina. “Is Chocolate Good or Bad for Health?” CNN, Cable News Network, 25 May