When it comes to the science of wellness, distinguishing the facts from the urban legends can be tough. That’s why we’ve enlisted Darya Pino – a scientist, foodie, and self-proclaimed geek girl. Check out the ZocDoc Blog every Tuesday to see her bust the biggest myths in health. Enjoy!
For most of us, chocolate is the alluring dark substance that seduces our senses and thwarts our diets, but every now and then it pops up in the news as a heart-healthy superfood. What’s the truth?
The first thing you need to understand when reading these studies is that there is a world of difference between pure chocolate and chocolate-flavored products. Chocolate breakfast cereals, chocolate milk syrup, and even many chocolate bars do not contain enough cacao—pure chocolate from the cocoa plant—to have any health benefits. In fact, these products usually have so much sugar, preservatives, and other processed ingredients that they have the opposite effect and contribute to many health problems.
So where can you find pure chocolate? Pure chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao plant that are fermented, dried, and roasted before being processed. Roasted cacao beans can sometimes be purchased as nibs, and these are the most pure form of chocolate you’re likely to find. They taste strongly of chocolate, but are bitter compared to the processed, smooth chocolate that has been ground, mixed with cocoa butter, and tempered into bars. Nibs are intensely flavored, but used in small amounts can add a wonderful taste and crunchy texture to many dishes. Try sprinkling them on your oatmeal or adding them to salads.
The health benefits of chocolate only come from the cacao it contains. While nibs are the most concentrated source of pure cocoa commonly available, some good quality chocolate bars also contain high concentrations. Look for chocolates with higher percentages of cacao, at least 70% or up. Good dark chocolate is not bitter, but instead has a rich complexity unmatched by the low-quality candies you see during your grocery store checkout.
There are several advantages of eating dark chocolate and nibs regularly. Multiple studies have demonstrated that cacao has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, in some cases as much as commercially available medications. Though chocolate is high in several antioxidants, the blood pressure lowering effect is thought to work through a specific antioxidant called epicatechin that increases the availability of nitric oxide, a compound that has a relaxing effect on blood vessels.
Chocolate also has other benefits for the cardiovascular system. Recent evidence suggests chocolate consumption reduces LDL cholesterol, particularly the dangerous oxidized version. Chocolate has also been shown to reduce blood clotting, and additional studies have linked chocolate consumption to fewer cardiac events (heart attack, stroke) and lower risk of mortality.
So to sum up: as long as you’re getting the good stuff, there do seem to be substantial heart benefits from regularly eating chocolate.
Image: <3 for chocolate, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from janineomg’s photostream.