Chocolate Week – Part 4

So far we’ve looked at the science of making chocolate, the effects it has on your brain, the reasons for cravings and how to overcome those cravings. For Part 4 of Chocolate Week we examine the health benefits of chocolate.

 

Because chocolate contains a high amount of sugar and fats it’s definitely a sometimes food. Not going to deny that at all – it’s important to eat it in moderation. But it is not entirely bad news, because there are some health benefits from eating chocolate, many of which are related to heart health.

 

In two studies released last year, eating around 6 grams of chocolate per day was shown to reduce heart failure and the risk of stroke. For a heart attack, the risk was reduced to around 75% compared to people who ate no chocolate, while the risk of a stroke was reduced by half. These effects were partially a result of reduced blood pressure in people who ate chocolate, however the reduced blood pressure was not the only reason for the reduced risk.

 

The reduced risk of heart failure, stroke, and lowered blood pressure is likely due to chocolate’s ability to thin the blood. Blood contains a type of cell called platelets, which when we cut a blood vessel will clump together and form a blockage to stop blood loss from the cut. However, if the platelets begin to clump together inside the blood vessels they increase blood pressure and cause a blockage in normal blood flow, leading to strokes or heart attacks. By reducing the ability of platelets to clump together inside blood vessels, chocolate can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and is actually the same way that many pharmaceutical drugs act to achieve the same effect. Dark chocolate is especially effective, with milk chocolate and white chocolate having almost no effect.

 

Adding to this effect of inhibiting platelet clumping, chocolate also improves blood flow by causing blood vessel relaxation. This effect was especially seen in the blood vessels surrounding the heart, the health of which is vitally important in preventing heart attacks. The relaxing of the arteries allows proper blood flow and also further reduces the likelihood of platelet clumping. The pumping action of arteries, important for keeping blood moving around the body, was also found to be improved after eating chocolate. Again, these effects are more pronounced after eating dark chocolate than other types.

 

Chocolate also has effects on insulin, but not what you may expect. Diabetes is a result of insulin resistance, basically the body can’t extract sugar from your bloodstream. Dark chocolate however, in healthy people, increases the ability of insulin to remove sugar from your bloodstream. I’m not going to suggest that diabetics start eating dark chocolate – you should always follow advice from your doctor and not something you read from the internet – but in healthy people it will decrease insulin resistance and allow your body to take up more sugar from the blood.

 

You may think that the fat content of chocolate may increase cholesterol, negating any improvements in heart function. However, one third of the fat found in chocolate is a type which does not change cholesterol production. On the contrary, dark chocolate has actually been found to increase production of HDL, so-called “good” cholesterol, and prevent changes to “bad” cholesterol which would make it even more harmful. These harmful effects of “bad” cholesterol include the formation of plaques inside blood vessels which interrupt blood flow and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. So stopping these modifications to “bad” cholesterol and increasing the amount of “good” cholesterol is another way chocolate can prevent these from occurring.

 

Many of these effects are from chemicals found in chocolate called polyphenols. This group of chemicals are also found in other foods and drinks which have good effects on health, such as tea and red wine. The cacao bean is unusually rich in polyphenols. however much is lost during the fermentation and drying process, and more are lost during the changes in temperature during conching and tempering. Because these chemicals come from the cacao beans, dark chocolate has considerably more than milk chocolate, as would be expected given the higher cacao content of dark chocolate. One study found around 3 times as much polyphenol in dark compared to milk, so if you really wanted to get the benefits of chocolate, stick to the raw beans or dark chocolate. Having tasted raw beans, I’d recommend sticking to the dark chocolate.

 

There are health benefits from eating chocolate, especially for the heart, but there are also downsides from the sugar and fat content. So as with everything, it’s best to keep it in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

 

Chocolate Week recap:

Chocolate Week

Part 1 – Making chocolate

Part 2 – What chocolate does to your brain

Part 3 – Overcoming chocolate cravings

Thanks again to Brendan Somerville and Robyn Vast who provided their knowledge for Chocolate Week and my friends at the RiAus (www.riaus.org.au)

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