You are likely to have come across headlines about benefits of chocolate, a relatively recent addition to the sought-after "superfoods" that could boost your physical health as well as mental health.
Studies have linked their consumption to lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of heart disease, reduced stress, better memory, and more. But to what extent can we refer to chocolate as healthy food?
Two factors to consider here are the type consumed and the quantity consumed.
Specifically, the flavanols present in cocoa are said to be responsible for the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of chocolate. This is why a majority of the research examines dark chocolate, which contains higher levels of flavanols compared to milk chocolate and white chocolate.
"Flavanols are one of the most promising and exciting nutritional interventions available for helping to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, and a large-scale randomized trial is the next logical step in testing their effectiveness," said Dr. JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women's Hospital.
But the problem is that most of the commercially sold chocolate also comes with high amounts of sugar and additives. This means any benefits you could gain from those flavanols are canceled out by these harmful components. Or worse, the production process could eliminate the flavanols, which we cannot accurately determine from the cocoa solids percentage.
Onto the subject of quantity, researchers have yet to establish the best serving size to reap potential benefits. But we do know that eating too much can result in an elevated risk of weight gain, tooth decay, dependence, and other damaging effects.
For certain individuals, Greatist notes that chocolate consumption can also be bad for the skin and create serious problems for those who are at risk of developing kidney stones. Going on a chocolate binge can induce anxiety, diarrhea, irritability, and other such effects.
As of now, enjoying moderate portions of chocolate — 1 ounce a few times per week, as estimated by the Cleveland Clinic — should be harmless. Other foods that are good sources of flavonoids include apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries.
The bottom line is that, until we have higher quality research, it is too early to perceive dark chocolate as a nutritious superfood or anything more than an occasional treat.
Something to keep in mind about existing research is that much of it is funded by chocolate companies, which means they are prone to bias. An analysis of literature by Voxestimated how 98 percent of studies funded by Mars Inc. had positive findings.
Furthermore, small findings may be exaggerated or misinterpreted by the university press release, which has a rippling effect across many news outlets covering the study.
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