Chocolate isn’t good for you after all

As a dietitian I keep hearing this questions time and time again – is chocolate good for you? Some common responses:

Yes! Because it contains anti-oxidants. (This is true)

No. Because chocolate contains a lot of fat and sugar. (This is also true)

*sigh*

I always find headlines like this exhausting because truth be told, I don’t think that much about what I eat. Instead, I ask myself “Is this good for my overall health?” or “Is this a ‘once in awhile’ food?” Chocolate fits in the latter category so I choose whichever type of chocolate I like and enjoy it as a treat (lately it’s been in the form of a Toblerone bar).

So when I heard stories in the news saying that chocolate is no longer “good for you” because the anti-oxidants contained in cocoa are heat sensitive and are destroyed during processing, I don’t worry about it too much. I believe there is a place for all foods – including chocolate.

However, because there is some evidence that cocoa has a positive effect on blood pressure, and I don’t want people going hog wild and using this tidbit as a reason to eat buckets of chocolate, it’s still worth clarifying the information.

Flavanols are anti-oxidants that are found in high concentrations in cocoa beans. Cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and dark chocolate contain higher amounts of flavanols because they contain more cocoa than sugar, cocoa butter, milk and other ingredients (which generally are not good for you).

Flavanols can also be found in other foods such as berries, some fruits, green tea, the skins of apples and red wine. So don’t think you have to only get them from chocolate. There are other (and healthier) choices out there.

Studies suggest that the amount of flavanols that a person would need to consume for health benefits is 200 mg each day. Here are the forms of chocolate that contain 200 mg of flavanols:

  • 1 ¾ Tbsp cocoa powder (20 calories)
  • 13 g of baking chocolate (70 calories)
  • 40 g of semi-sweet chocolate chips (200 calories)
  • 55 g of dark chocolate (300 calories)
  • 300 g of milk chocolate (1,580 calories)

cocoa_flavanol_content Chart from Nutrition Action Healthletter

As you can see, it is possible to get the suggested amount of flavanols but depending on the form you choose, you could negate any possible benefit due to the extra calories you’re consuming!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect to see people rushing out to eat spoonfuls of pure cocoa and baking chocolate for “health benefits”. However, I would choose to make a cup of hot chocolate using pure cocoa, milk and sugar to taste instead of relying on an instant hot chocolate mix.

Or if I decide to make chocolate chunk cookies, I’d choose dark baking chocolate instead of milk chocolate to help offset the sweetness and have more cocoa content versus using milk chocolate.

But the best bet for getting extra flavanols in your diet (without all the unhealthy extras and additional calories) is to take a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder and add it to your coffee, tea, milk, yogurt or oatmeal (or just eat grapes and blueberries).

I might try adding ½ Tbsp to my coffee and ½ Tbsp to my oatmeal in the morning (although I doubt I’ll be able to keep this up everyday). Or use cocoa to make a chocolate, avocado chia seed pudding. Mind you I don’t have high blood pressure so I really don’t need to worry about it too much.

For more information about cocoa, flavanols and its affect on blood pressure, check out the following articles below:

What to Eat: Are Cocoa and Chocolate a Reliable Source of Flavanols?

What to Eat: Chocolate and Cardiovascular Disease

Cochrane Review: Effect of cocoa on blood pressure

*If you don’t want to read through this scientific opinion/article (they can be quite dry and technical) it basically states that a beneficial effect on blood pressure was observed when subjects took a high-flavanol cocoa extract that was consumed as a capsule or tablet. And that 200 mg of cocoa flavanols should be consumed each day in order to achieve these effects. Mind you, Barry Callebaut (one of the biggest producers of chocolate in the world – they make excellent chocolate mind you) funded the study.

How about you? What do you tell people when they ask “Is chocolate good for me?”