Chocolate's become a "health food"; is it actually good for you?

 Is chocolate a health food?

Eating chocolate for its flavonols is like putting young kids in front of the TV for language skill development, or promoting video games for fine motor skills.

Chocolate, long associated with indulgence, romance and guilty pleasures has become a health food. A large expose in Vox last week traces the transformation.

Apparently, over the past three decades Nestle, Mars and Hershey, among others, have poured millions into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa research. The research has been fruitful, flooding the scientific journals with many peer-reviewed papers. The media relishes on these studies and coats them with extra chocolate syrup – there’s nothing as appealing and eye-catching as revealing that vices are actually good for you.

Cocoa, these studies found, lowers the risk of heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cognitive decline and diabetes, and is linked with lower body weight. And industry funding warped our perception of chocolate, Vox reports.

Let me demonstrate with an example. Consider this trio of studies about cocoa and our brain.

In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, 37 middle age people, who drank a mixture rich in cocoa’s flavonols for three months, improved their cognitive function. Functional MRI imaging after ingesting the cocoa drink found greater activity in the area of the brain called the dentate gyrus, an area associated with memory.

Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 90 elderly people who didn’t have cognitive impairment tested 3 cocoa drinks: with high, medium or low flavonol content. The people who drank the intermediate and high flavonol drinks showed improved cognitive performance and improvement in some mental tasks. Blood pressure and insulin resistance also improved in the high cocoa flavonol group. 

The same researchers conducted a similar study with older people that already suffered mild cognitive impairment. The study demonstrated that the 90 people that were randomly assigned to drink the intermediate and high cocoa flavonol drinks improved verbal fluency and increased the speed of mental processing when compared to the volunteers on the low flavonol drink.

These are encouraging, interesting findings, about cocoa. The titles in the popular media, however, took these findings all the way to “Chocolate Protects Against Alzheimer’s” and “Chocolate Makes You Smarter.”

Spending money and time on cocoa

Concentrating on cocoa’s merits creates distortion in perception, even if all the research is done diligently and honestly. Engaging researchers’ time and focusing it on one – food industry sponsored – food, diverts attention from other topics and foods they could and should be studying.

And by the time the results are reported in popular media, they’re hyped to the point that an association with lower risk is understood as a cure – no less – for the associated condition.

Is chocolate really good for you?

Chocolate research centers on cocoa flavonols. Flavonols are plant molecules, abundant in many foods. Cocoa beans are seeds, and seeds are generally packed with important phytochemicals to protect the seed and enable its development into a full-grown plant. Tea, onions, kale, grapes and apples also contain similar flavonols. That's why we should eat lots of and mostly plants.

Had we been eating pure cocoa the positive findings would have been somewhat applicable.

But eating chocolate for its flavonols is like putting young kids in front of the TV for language skill development, or promoting video games for fine motor skills. Yes, there’s some educational value in TV programing, and there are flavonols in chocolate.

Those beneficial specks are bundled, however, with lots of other stuff.

In chocolate’s case the flavonol package includes added sugar, lots of it. And fat.

Investing in research on any whole plant food usually leads to encouraging results.

I’ve confessed to my love for chocolate before. It’s my favorite treat. But a treat is exactly what it is. To deliver enough flavonols from chocolate to make a difference you’d need to consume lots and lots of calories and sugar. I eat chocolate for pleasure, and don't intend to give it up.

If you're seeking the benefits of cocoa flavonols, however, I suggest a handful of cocoa nibs. These are pure, crunchy crushed bits of cocoa beans; they’re great in salads, smoothies and on yogurt, and are slightly bitter – because they have no sugar added. The taste of pure cocoa is not sweet. 

Dr. Ayala

 If you want the health benefits without the sugar, try cacao nibs

If you want the health benefits without the sugar, try cacao nibs

If you’re seeking the benefits of cocoa flavonols, however, I suggest a handful of cacao nibs