But candy companies want you to believe it is.
Dark chocolate, “health food.”
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? That’s because the answer, according to many physicians is: “yes.”
Just do a simple Google search and you’ll find multiple articles highlighting the health benefits of dark chocolate. Headlines from media outlets — both obscure and mainstream — expound upon how healthy the delicious treat can be.
But just how much of this “healthy” push is the product of somewhat deceiving campaigns to boost chocolate’s image as something more than an indulgence?
Quite a bit, actually. And while it’s true that there are some health benefits from eating cocoa, dark chocolate isn’t the trendy health food it’s been made out to be.
Indeed, dark chocolate isn’t all bad.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that dark chocolate contains 50 to 90 percent cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. It doesn’t look that great when measured up to its competitors. Those percentages are significantly greater compared to the 10 to 50 percent of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and some form of milk that comprise milk chocolate.
What’s the good news?
Cocoa is full of flavanols, chemical compounds found in many vegetables and fruits that have been found to have health benefits, including antioxidant properties that can benefit heart health.
Flavanols have been shown to encourage the creation nitric oxide within the inner cell lining of blood vessels, which can improve blood flow and lead to lower blood pressure. Beyond this, the Harvard Chan School says that flavanols have been shown to increase people’s insulin sensitivity, suggesting a possible reduction of diabetes risk.
If you’re to believe the hype out there, you’d be ready to accept dark chocolate as a feel-good way to fight off everything from diabetes to a heart attack.
However, that image is deceiving.
Vox recently published a detailed article interrogating the prevailing notion of dark chocolate as a miracle “safe food.” In the article, journalist Julia Belluz took a look at 100 Mars-funded (yes, the makers of the popular chocolate bars) health studies that hinted at the health benefits of consuming cocoa- and chocolate-rich food items.
Belluz quotes New York University Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, emerita, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, as saying that companies like Mars “made a conscious decision to invest in science” in order to make their product seem less like a tasty snack and more like a “health food.”
“You can now sit there with your (chocolate bar) and say, I’m getting my flavanoids,” Belluz told Vox.
It’s something of a marketing masterstroke that candy companies were able to take a treat your parents might’ve scolded you for having too much of as a child and repackaged it as a fail-safe preventive ailment for serious health problems.
Vox traces Mars’ efforts back to 1982, when the company behind Snickers and M&M’s set up the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science, a research arm of the candy company to examine and disseminate, in part, information on the health benefits of cocoa.
Vox reports that Mars’ scientific initiative — Mars Symbioscience — has supported 140-peer-reviewed scientific studies since 2005 to look at the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.
So, is it actually bad for you to indulge in dark chocolate?
Dr. JoAnn Manson, MPH, DrPH, professor in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says no, enjoy your Christmas candy, but don’t listen to all of the exaggerated reports of its health benefits.
“I think the key point is that chocolate is a wonderful treat, but it’s not really a health food,” Manson, who is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the chief in the division of preventive medicine at the department of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Healthline.
Manson said that, indeed, the cocoa flavanols you hear about do exist in dark chocolate, but they are in varying amounts depending on the chocolate product you are consuming.
“The amount of flavanols varies tremendously product to product. I don’t know if you are getting a high content of cocoa [in a given product],” she said, pointing out that chocolate also “tends to be high in calories, saturated fat, and sugar.”
Manson is also part of the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), a large-scale clinical study that will randomize about 22,000 men and women nationwide to see if taking daily cocoa flavanol supplements or a common multivitamin could reduce a person’s risk for cancer, stroke, or heart disease.
The study is being run out of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.
“Cocoa flavanols do look promising for reducing the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular events, but still, it’s being studied and there is no conclusive evidence yet that this can reduce the risk of clinical heart attacks and events,” Manson said. “The COSMOS trial is a large study population and a large clinical trial. We are about halfway through the trials now… and in 2021 we will be able to report results.”
Manson stressed that we are not ready to definitively say exactly how beneficial cocoa flavanols could be for your health. She said that the early research indicates that they could be helpful for cognitive function and reducing the risk of heart disease.
“There is some research going on at Columbia, and we are actually collaborating with them. I would say, in two to three years, we will have a good handle on the health benefits, the health effects of cocoa flavanols,” she added.
Manson said that we should all wait for the results of the study to fully assess just how impactful flavanols, derived from chocolate, can be on a person’s health.
Ali Webster, PhD, RD, associate director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, told Healthline that while dark chocolate can provide important minerals like iron, copper, zinc, phosphorus, and magnesium, the amounts of these nutrients is fairly small compared to that found in other foods.
“I hate to ruin the fun, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on dark chocolate to improve your health,” Webster said. “Dark chocolate is a concentrated source of calories and eating too much of it can lead to eating too many calories in general, which may result in weight gain. Even with a few notable health benefits, it’s important to remember that dark chocolate should still be considered a treat or small indulgence — something we eat once in a while or in small amounts.”
Webster added that the amount of chocolate you would have to eat to get the appropriate amount of flavanols would “be quite large.”
“In some cases, we’re talking more than a whole bar of chocolate, if the percentage of cocoa isn’t very high. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the higher the flavanol content is per ounce, meaning that you’d need a smaller serving of chocolate to deliver the same amount of flavanols,” Webster said.
Manson said that the media’s tendency to jump on the latest “health food craze” can be frustrating.
“I think it’s important that the public gets accurate and responsible information, especially about dietary supplements and if someone is being told that a candy, a type of candy, is a ‘health food,’ then there needs to be a lot of evidence for that,” Manson said.
It’s easy to see why one might look skeptically at movements to declare any kind of chocolate a “health food.”
While chocolate products might contain some beneficial ingredients, Manson said that moderation is key.
“My big concern is not that you consume dark chocolate as a treat or when people have it periodically around the holidays now and then, it’s more when people start taking something regularly,” Manson said. “My concern is giving a message to people that this should do something for their health when there’s unsubstantiated evidence. It’s not there yet, not ready for public health recommendations.”
Webster agrees, noting people shouldn’t feel guilty treating themselves during the holidays, but moderation is key.
“It’s been proven time and again that when we try to resist something that we want, it tends to backfire,” Webster said. “We eat more than we would have if we’d just eaten the treat in the first place, and this kind of ‘overdoing it’ is often accompanied by guilt.”
Webster offers some suggestions for avoiding these temptations.
First, she says you should “silently ask yourself” if you really want the treat presented in front of you.
“It’s easy to mindlessly take a handful of candy or a slice of cake when it’s offered, but if you know you don’t really like red velvet cake, remind yourself that you don’t have to eat it just because it’s there,” she recommended. “Similarly, if you’re going to indulge, make it something that you truly enjoy.”
She added, “Thirdly, take two or three bites of a treat, then ask yourself if you want or need more. The first few bites of any food are often the most satisfying, and you may be just as happy — or even more so — if you stop after that rather than soldiering through an entire dessert.”
Manson said, be patient.
“Enjoy, but keep in mind: moderation in all things,” she said. “Stay tuned for the conclusive evidence (on flavanols). At some point, there may be a recommendation to consume more cocoa flavanols, probably in powdered mix-in food. It won’t be a bunch of candy bars at once.”