Is dark chocolate good for the heart? A doctor reveals the sad truth
The routine question — “Is dark chocolate healthy?” — pricks up the ears of chocolate lovers the world over. Note: another excuse to eat the salty treat. But just like red wine and coffee, is dark chocolate actually good for you?
Bad news: it doesn’t. But don’t worry just yet.
As is usually the case, it’s not that chocolate itself is healthy, not in the same way as vegetables. On the contrary, a compound in cocoa could have some health benefits. This compound is cocoa flavanol, which has been of interest for years.
Is dark chocolate healthy?
“It really shouldn’t be seen as a health food,” says Dr. JoAnn Manson, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the trial’s principal investigator.
A study published earlier this month in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed some findings from an ongoing clinical trial of 21,442 people in the United States who took 500 milligrams of cocoa flavanols as two capsules daily for more than five years.
This clinical trial, called the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), doesn’t even consider chocolate itself as a way to reduce cardiovascular health risks. It examines the use of additional cocoa flavanol capsules containing 500 milligrams of the compound. Although there are indications that these supplements may have a benefit, dark chocolate may not healthily be that source.
You can’t just eat that amount of cocoa flavanols from chocolate. According to Manson, to get health benefits, you should eat 4,000 calories of milk chocolate and about 600 calories of high-cacao dark chocolate per day. Some people might be thrilled that eating between 600 and 1,000 calories of chocolate has the effect of a supplement, but at this point the consequences of excess sugar and fat far outweigh the benefits.
On top of that, Manson points out that chocolate is not a reliable “delivery vehicle” for cocoa flavanols. “One of the reasons why you don’t see any mention of milligrams of cocoa flavanols on chocolate bars is because the processing of chocolate varies,” she explains. Reverse. “With certain forms of processing, all or a very large part of the cocoa flavanols are destroyed.” There is no certainty about high flavanol content, even in dark chocolate with lots of cocoa.
What is cocoa flavanol?
Flavanol is a special type of compound within a larger family called flavonoids. They are naturally present in plant-based foods, including grapes, berries, and tea.
Previous trials have shown that cocoa flavanols are associated with lower blood pressure, better dilation of blood vessels and anti-inflammatory properties. While previous clinical trials have suggested they may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events, no large trials have randomized the use of cocoa flavanol supplements with other methods. Manson says COSMOS is the first large-scale randomized clinical trial that examines cocoa flavanols in reducing cardiovascular events, including heart attacks, strokes, cardiovascular deaths, carotid artery disease and others.
In the study, there were four different randomized groups. Patients took:
- Cocoa extract and a multivitamin
- A cocoa extract placebo and a multivitamin
- Cocoa extract and a multivitamin placebo
- A cocoa extract placebo and a multivitamin placebo
There was a 10% reduction in the total number of cardiovascular events in the groups that took cocoa flavanols, which is not statistically significant, meaning it is not a large enough reduction to consider cocoa flavanols as a significant way to prevent cardiovascular events in general.
However, there was a 27% reduction in cardiovascular deaths among those who took cocoa flavanol supplements. This finding merits further investigation into cocoa flavanols as a means of reducing cardiovascular risk.
Are flavanols healthy?
Any hopeful chocolate lover can fall prey to the false and seductive logic that “flavanols are healthy; dark chocolate contains flavanols; so chocolate is healthy. Although this is unfortunately not the case, flavanols and flavonoids are indeed healthy and should be included in a balanced diet.
“Our conclusion is to seek a heart-healthy balance that is rich in many sources of flavanols such as grapes, berries, and other fruits,” Manson said. Reverse.
However, she is not ruthless. “Chocolate is a wonderful treat. It’s perfectly fine to indulge in the occasional chocolate treat. If you feel like indulging in dark chocolate while consuming your flavanols and flavonoids, enjoy dark chocolate covered strawberries.
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