Eat More Chocolate
During the holiday season many of us consume too much, and thus the guilty New Year’s resolutions. But if you do it right, there is one treat you do not have to feel guilt about over consuming, and that is chocolate. There are countless studies on the benefits of chocolate; following I will highlight a few of the more interesting ones.
The aim of this study was to investigate “whether high-flavanol cocoa supplementation would improve the moderately photo-aged facial skin of female participants. (Photoaging is the scientific term for aged skin due to long-term exposure to ultraviolet light.) The study ran for 24 week (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled), and all participants were women with visible facial wrinkles (age range: 43-86 y). Participants were randomly assigned to receive a placebo beverage, or cocoa beverage that contained 320 mg total cocoa flavanols, daily. Researchers measured wrinkles, skin elasticity, and hydration at baseline, and at 12 and 24 wk. It was concluded, “In moderately photo-aged women, regular cocoa flavanol consumption had positive effects on facial wrinkles and elasticity.”
From the same researchers who did the immunity study (below) comes another on brain health. As with the immunity study, they only used 5 subjects (aged 22 - 40), and, like that study, subjects were given a 48 gram dark chocolate bar (70% cocoa, 30% sugar) to eat. Scientific data was accumulated by observing their Electroencephalography (EEG) response. The EEG test was given before the chocolate was consumed (to establish a baseline), and again at 30, and 120 minutes, after consuming the chocolate.
Results indicated the dark chocolate led to an increase in gamma frequency, in the cerebral cortical regions of the brain, areas involved in memory and sensory processing. The study concluded, "We suggest that this superfood of 70 percent cacao enhances neuroplasticity for behavioral and brain health benefits".
A study, published in the European Heart Journal, followed over 19,000 Germans (between 35 and 65 years old) for 10 years. They found those who ate the most chocolate (an average of 7.5 grams a day) had lower blood pressure, and a 39% lower risk of having a heart attack or stroke, compared to those who ate the least amount of chocolate (1.7 grams a day). Interestingly, the difference in chocolate consumption between benefit and little benefit, amounted to only 6 grams, the equivalent of less than one small square of a 100g bar.
Another study sought to examine “whether chocolate consumption is associated with calcified atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries (CAC)”. The study revealed there was indeed “an inverse association between frequency of chocolate consumption and prevalent CAC”.
“Recently, flavanols, a subgroup of plant-derived phytochemicals called flavonoids, have gained attention, due to studies showing an inverse correlation between dietary intake of flavanols, and incidence of diabetes. Flavonoids in the cocoa plant may serve to reduce insulin resistance by improving endothelial function, altering glucose metabolism, and reducing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been proposed as one of the main causes of insulin resistance. Overall, the evidence from these studies suggests that cocoa may be useful in slowing the progression to type 2 diabetes, and ameliorating insulin resistance in metabolic syndrome. Additionally, results from several small studies indicate that cocoa may also have therapeutic potential in preventing cardiovascular complications in diabetic patients.”
In a small scale study, 5 healthy adults (aged 25 - 50) were given 48 grams of dark chocolate, to eat daily for 8 days. Blood samples were analyzed each day, in order to determine how chocolate consumption affects genetic expression associated with immune system activity. The researchers found eating dark chocolate led to an increase in the expression of genes involved in the activation of T cells, the white blood cells that help fight infection and disease.
“To date, it can be concluded that if inflammation is mild and cocoa has a high polyphenol content, it could help in the resolution of inflammatory response, and, in any case, due to its antioxidant properties, cocoa can be a complementary anti-inflammatory therapy.”
“Flavonoids from cocoa significantly prevented DNA damage, and improved the nucleus integrity of cells. This effect could be related to the antioxidant capacity of the dark chocolate that decreased cellular stress. Biochemical parameters (total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL-cholesterol level in blood) and anthropometrical parameters (waist circumference) were improved after six months of daily intake of 2 g of dark chocolate with 70% of cocoa.”
Cocoa beans are rich in antioxidants such as flavonoids, catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins. The aim of this in-vitro study was to evaluate the inhibitory effect of different cocoa polyphenols extracts, alone or combined with beta-sitosterol, on two human prostate cancer cell lines, and a normal human prostate cell line. The cocoa polyphenols extracts induced a complete inhibition of growth of metastatic (spreading cancer cells) and nonmetastatic cancer cell lines. Cocoa polyphenols extracts were significantly more active and showed a strong and fast inhibition of cell growth, than beta-sitosterol alone. No synergy or added benefit was observed when beta-sitosterol was tested together with the cocoa polyphenols extract. “Our results show that cocoa polyphenols extracts have an antiproliferative effect on prostate cancer cell growth but not on normal cells, at the highest tested concentration.”
A number of studies have suggested that regular chocolate consumption can help reduce the effects of stress, this study sought to find evidence of the biochemical mechanism at work in relieving stress. Published in the Journal of Proteome Research, this study concluded, there was "strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 g of dark chocolate during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of ... healthy human subjects". They found markedly reduced levels of the fight-or-flight, stress hormones, cortisol and catecholamines,
A study that looked at how chocolate could affect body weight found that there was a dose-dependant level at which benefit occurred. At 30 grams, or more, of cocoa or dark chocolate daily, for at least 4 to 8 weeks weight, waist circumference, and Body Mass Index (BMI), were reduced.
In another study, “results demonstrate that a higher chocolate consumption was associated with lower total and central fatness in European adolescents”.
While most of these studies did not use organic chocolate (except for the brain health and immunity studies), when we look at using chocolate as a regular part of our diet it is a good idea to buy organic whenever possible. Chocolate is a third world cash crop, and like all such crops, is prone to higher than normal (i.e. acceptable in the West) levels of pesticide use. These days cocoa not grown organically is also often contaminated with the herbicide glyphosate (“Roundup”), which is linked to many health problems.
Almost all studies that show benefit from chocolate consumption are based on using dark chocolate (least 70%). Much lower than that, and the intake of polyphenols, and other beneficial compounds, drops below an effective level. And, of course, as the amount of chocolate decreases in a bar, the amount of sugar increases until, ultimately the detriment of the sugar outweighs the benefits of the cocoa.
I personally am glad that this research is all based on chocolate rather than raw cacao as I am not a fan. However, cacao being unprocessed chocolate, contains even more polyphenols and flavanols than regular processed cocoa, and so is an even better health choice, if one enjoys it. In fact, raw cacao has one of the highest concentration of antioxidants of any food.
Considering that it is not only chocolate that helps to prevent strokes, but also red wine and coffee, it is a great time in history to be health-conscious.