Benefits of Chocolate, Part 1
It’s officially the time of year when all types of treats
begin to fill tables at holiday celebrations, office parties and family
gatherings. While conventional wisdom holds that desserts can be detrimental to
a person’s overall health, recent studies have reported some sweeter
findings—perhaps justifying that extra piece of chocolate this holiday season.
The medical uses of chocolate date back as early as 1900 B.C., when it was
first consumed by pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, such as the Olmec, and
used as a tool for administering foul-tasting medicines. Initially mixed with
spices, this form of chocolate was far from the sweet delicacy that is popular
today. However, by the 16th century, a much sweeter form gained popularity in
Europe. It later fell into question due to its assumed risks based on increased
According to data from Euro-Monitor, Americans will eat
about $18 billion worth of chocolate in 2015—that is roughly 18% of the world's
chocolate. Since so many people indulge in this sweet treat, much research has
been conducted to identify the health effects of chocolate.
Over the years, a number of studies have found that chocolate intake is
correlated with a reduced risk of death by heart attack. High demand for
methods to protect against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death
in the United States, makes this correlation significant.
One study, published in 2015 in the journal Heart
(http://heart.bmj.com/content/101/16/1279), examined the long-term effects of
diet on human health and concluded that, in patients who ate 15 grams to 100
grams of chocolate a day, risk of heart disease dropped more than in patients
who completely avoided consumption. Of the 25,000 study volunteers, more
reported eating milk chocolate than dark chocolate, which has long been
considered healthier. A primary reason why dark chocolate is regarded as
healthier than milk chocolate is because it contains less milk and sugar and
more flavonoid content.
“Research shows that organic [chocolate] has more
nutritional value than conventional, and that milk chocolate does not provide
the same benefits as dark chocolate. This is not only because of the low cacao
content, but also because dairy in milk chocolate binds with the beneficial
antioxidants,” explained Nichole Dandrea, MS, RD, owner of Nicobella Organics.
Chocolate is linked with reduced cardiovascular risk because
it is full of flavonoid antioxidants, which improve function of the
endothelium, or inner lining of the blood vessels. Chocolate can also improve
arterial function, increasing high-density lipoprotein or “good” cholesterol
and decreasing low-density protein or “bad” cholesterol (1).
Chocolate has also been linked with improved cognition. Research shows that
cocoa consumption significantly improves self-reported mental fatigue and
performance. It contains theobromine and caffeine, which confer the positive
responses and positively influence mood and alertness (2).
People with mild cognitive impairment benefit from the
health effects of chocolate as well. Although flavonoids may have direct
effects on neurons and neurodegenerative brain processes, it is really
chocolate’s ability to heighten insulin sensitivity—affecting blood sugar and
ultimately brain function—that fosters optimal brain health.
Other micronutrients found in chocolate, known as
polyphenols, have prompted the development of a cocoa extract as a natural
remedy to promote optimal brain health. The cocoa polyphenols are believed to
reduce the production and buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins that have
been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease (3).
“While the overall goal of many chocolate manufacturers is
to try to identify the best way to have polyphenols maintained in the chain of
production, the work we have been doing is trying to identify mechanisms
through certain polyphenols from different sources, including grape and cacao,
to promote resilience to psychological stress and cognitive degeneration or
impairment,” said Giulio Maria Pasinetti, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at
the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, in an interview with
ADVANCE. Pasinetti is also the director of biomedical training at the J.J.
Peters Bronx VA Medical Center in New York.
Approximately 20% of people older than 70 experience mild
cognitive impairment, and each year 5% of them will progress to dementia,
according to the University of California’s Berkeley Wellness blog. If
chocolate can help deter cognitive impairment, midlife and older adults may
want to consider increasing their chocolate intake.
“Our work in the next few years hopes to provide the
opportunity for the development of a biological compound to deliver polyphenols
orally and to thereby exert beneficial effects on cognitive function,”