Studies prove chocolate is good for you

25 Jun 2020

Food + Drink Health

There are multiple benefits of dark chocolate, and we look at the studies that proved it.

We all want to believe that our favourite snack is actually good for us – but in the case of chocolate, it might actually be true! Don’t start scoffing on your favourite chocolate just yet though, as it all depends on the type of chocolate and how much you eat. The healthiest chocolate (and the type that has the most benefits) is dark chocolate, as it has a higher percentage of cocoa.

We’ve taken a dive into the studies around eating our favorite cocoa-based treat and its health benefits to find out what exactly about chocolate is good for you and what the benefits of dark chocolate really are.

Blueberries antioxidants superfood good for you
Blueberries are high in antioxidants and often classed as a “Superfood”

Antioxidants are what make dark chocolate healthy

You’ll have heard of antioxidants: antioxidant-rich food is widely marketed as a “superfood,” and can be found in any number of foods, from red wine to goji berries. But what does an antioxidant do?

Simply put, antioxidants are molecules that protect other molecules in your body from oxidation. Oxidation damages cells by moving electrons around and changing the structure of the molecules; this creates unstable free radicals. These free radicals can cause a chain reaction of oxidation and results in irreversible damage to cells, including those vital to our function such as DNA and proteins.

Antioxidants reduce the risk of free radical damage, which could be one of the causes of early ageing and can contribute to some health problems such as cataracts, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Cocoa has high levels of flavonoids, which are a large group of plant-based antioxidants. The specific antioxidant flavonoids in cocoa are called flavanols.

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Flavonoid Database, 100 grams of unsweetened dark chocolate has 206 milligrams of flavanols. Flavanol content will vary depending on how much cocoa is in your chocolate.

Dark chocolate will have more flavanol-based benefits, whereas milk chocolate will have less; white chocolate doesn’t contain cocoa solids (just cocoa butter) so has almost no flavanol content. Most cocoa powders are also a source of flavanols, but make sure it isn’t Dutch-processed as this cocoa is processed with alkaline which significantly lowers the levels of the antioxidant.

Chocolate is good for blood pressure

There have been multiple studies that have looked at the link between dark chocolate consumption and blood pressure.

Harvard Medical School showed that flavanol-rich cocoa supports the production of nitric oxide in the inner cell lining of arteries and blood vessels. Nitric oxide helps relax the blood vessels, improving blood flow and subsequently lowering blood pressure. This can help to treat multiple serious blood-pressure related ailments such as stroke, heart disease and heart attacks.

The study stated the flavanol-rich cocoa induced “consistent and striking” dilation of the blood vessels. Although a good indicator, the study was only carried out on a small sample size of 27 people, which may not be indicative of the population at large.

Further studies on the effects of cocoa on blood pressure were carried out by Harvard Medical School on Kuna Indians, an isolated tribe who reside in an archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama. This group has an extremely low record of suffering from high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and heart disease, despite having a salt intake higher than most Western populations.

San Blas islands kuna people drink cocoa
Many of the Kuna people live on the San Blas island archipegalo

The scientists conducting the study suggested that this was due to the fact that the Kuna drink over five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa daily, resulting in “probably the highest flavanol intake of any community on earth”.

Although various other studies have also linked the intake of flavanol-rich cocoa to a drop in blood pressure, it is almost impossible to say conclusively that dark chocolate will lead to healthier blood pressure.

The level of flavanols vary widely within chocolate, and chocolate brands don’t have to specify the flavanol content on their packaging. Most studies either used pure cocoa or dark chocolate, which is higher in cocoa and lower in sugar, so less likely to cause adverse health issues.

Nevertheless, the evidence supporting the link between chocolate and healthy blood pressure still remains noteworthy: Dr Joann Manson, MPH, DrPH and professor at the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Healthline that Cocoa flavanols “looked promising” for reducing the risk of heart disease.

She is part of the COSMOS trial, the first large-scale clinical trial in the United States investigating whether cocoa flavanol taken as a multivitamin reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Manson said that the results will be reported in 2021.

Chocolate helps you study
A small square of chocolate could help you study

Chocolate is good for your brain

Chocolate can even boost your brain function, according to some studies; if you’re studying for a test or having a difficult day at work, a square of dark chocolate could give you a mental boost.

A 2016 study found that people who ate chocolate once a week performed better in mental tests involving memory and abstract reasoning. This means that weekly chocolate intake could help you remember your shopping list better, or help you multitask.

The research suggested that “regular intake of cocoa flavanols may have a beneficial effect on cognitive function, and possibly protect against normal age-related cognitive decline.”

Although the study showed a correlation between brain function and eating chocolate once a week, we still are unsure precisely why this is the case. The researchers admit that this could be related to a variety of other factors, and that more research has to be carried out in this area to reach conclusive results.

Another study in 2017 found similar results, showing “dose-dependent improvements in general cognition [high-level brain function like language, planning and processing], attention, processing speed and working memory.” It added that cocoa flavanols could be used to enhance your brain function when you’re sleep-deprived, or be used to counteract cognitive decline.

Although this study also found clear links between cognitive function and chocolate intake, the reliability of these results are somewhat limited, as only small groups were used to collect data, and that other factors may have been involved. They recommended that any future research on chocolate and brain function should focus on neuroimaging to truly understand what was happening in the brain when chocolate was eaten.

smiling person chocolate is good for your mood

Chocolate is good for your mood

Although many of us reach for a chocolate bar when we’re feeling down, there is actually scientific evidence that chocolate can be good for our mental health.

A study by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology stated that eating chocolate can interact with the neurotransmitter systems in our brain that regulate dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals help enhance our mood and make us feel “happier”.

Other ingredients in the chocolate, such as phenylethylamine (a natural antidepressant) and tryptophan (linked to the production of serotonin) could also enhance your mood.

However, Science Focus magazine pointed out that these chemicals are only present in very small quantities, so the feeling of happiness might simply be linked to the reward of eating chocolate after having craved it. We’ve taken a deeper dive into the link between eating chocolate and feeling low in this blog if you want to find out more.

Cocoa can also reduce stress in individuals, according to a study on perceived stress carried out on medical students. The researchers found that eating “40g of dark and milk chocolate daily during a period of two weeks appeared to be an effective way to reduce perceived stress in females”.

This is also backed up by a previous 2009 study that had the same results, identifying the antioxidant polyphenol as the stress-busting ingredient. However, both these studies had very small sample sizes, and more research is needed in this area.

Make the most of the benefits of dark chocolate

Although we still don’t fully understand why chocolate is good for you, there is enough evidence to prove that it can have multiple health benefits. However, you should always weigh up the positives of eating chocolate with the calories and sugar content in the chocolate.

That’s why dark chocolate is the best choice if you’re looking for a mental boost; the higher the cocoa content, the more health benefits you gain.If you’re already a dark chocolate aficionado, try our 100% dark chocolate for a savoury hit, or get a selection of our single origin dark chocolates to taste the nuanced notes of cocoa beans from different regions of the world.

If you’re more of a milk chocolate fan, then our revolutionary Supermilk chocolate is for you; with 65% cocoa, a splash of milk for sweetness and less sugar than our 70% dark, it balances deep cocoa notes with creaminess perfectly.

Overall, the studies look promising; chocolate can actually be good for you! However, we’ll be waiting to find out more about exactly how much chocolate you need to see the benefits of dark chocolate. In the meantime, we’ll carry on snacking on our favourite chocolate guilt-free!