Man eating chocolate energy bar in a gym

Chocolate has been highly prized for thousands of years, from the time of the Mayans and Aztecs.1 In fact, the scientific name of the cacao tree—whose seeds are made into chocolate—is Greek for “food of the gods.” Today, chocolate has become a sign of love and affection. But chocolate isn't just for special occasions like Valentine’s Day.

Figures compiled in 2017 showed that Americans consume close to 10 pounds of chocolate each year on average. The Swiss are the largest consumers of chocolate in the world, with each person eating about 19.4 pounds per year.2

It’s exciting to think that something already linked to the heart in a romantic way might literally be good for the heart that beats in your chest.

According to resources such as the Cleveland Clinic and Harvard.edu, some beliefs about chocolate’s health benefits appear to be true. But before you rush to the store, you should know that not all chocolate is the same.

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is the right choice if you’re interested in the health benefits, as it contains 2–3 times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids compared to milk chocolate.3

Flavanols are a special type of antioxidant. They have been shown to have a healthy effect on blood vessels and the heart, as well as on insulin levels, potentially reducing the risk of diabetes. And dark chocolate is loaded with these beneficial plant chemicals.4

A 2009 study of the Kuna Indians, who live in an isolated community off the coast of Panama and consume an unusually high level of flavanol-rich cocoa, showed reduced frequency of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer—at least according to their death certificates. The authors said the findings were important enough that large-scale clinical trials should be pursued.5

Dark chocolate alternatives

White chocolate, which is not truly chocolate, milk chocolate and cocoa mixes don't seem to have the same benefits as dark chocolate. To get the most flavonoids, look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa or more.6

The reality is that ingredients in dark chocolate can be healthy, but the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain them aren't necessarily good for you. The bottom line: it's OK to enjoy some chocolate. But for the health benefits, make it dark and don't eat a lot!7

Sources

  1. “The History of Chocolate” slideshow, WebMD, last accessed Jan. 12, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/ss/slideshow-chocolate-history, opens new window
  2. “Celebrating country and chocolate,” Candy Industry, last accessed Jan. 12, 2020, https://www.candyindustry.com/blogs/14-candy-industry-blog/post/88254-celebrating-country-and-chocolate, opens new window.
  3. “Dark Chocolate,” Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, last accessed Jan. 12, 2020, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/dark-chocolate/, opens new window.
  4. “Dark Chocolate.”
  5. Norman K. Hollenberg, M.D., Ph.D., Naomi D.L. Fisher, M.D., and Marjorie L. McCullough, Sc.D., R.D. , “Flavonols, the Kuna, cocoa consumption and nitric oxide,” J Am Soc Hypertens. 2009 Mar-Apr; 3(2), last accessed Jan. 12, 2020: 10.1016/j.jash.2008.11.001, opens new window.
  6. “Dark Chocolate.”
  7. “Heart Healthy Benefits of Chocolate,” Cleveland Clinic, last accessed Jan. 12, 2020, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16774-heart-healthy-benefits-of-chocolate, opens new window.