A component in cocoa seems to help control blood sugar and inflammation, but there's a caveat.
Chocolate’s health benefits have always been a topic of discussion. A new analysis of existing studies provides more support for the idea that cocoa in chocolate may actually be good for you. But be cautious if you're tempted to raid the candy aisle: While it seems to be beneficial, the impact of chocolate on day-to-day health isn't clear.
Researchers aren't ready to offer recommendations about exactly how much chocolate, and what type, provides benefits that outweigh its unhealthy effects.
However, “…when balancing the benefits and risks. [Users] shouldn’t ignore the calories and sugar that may come with chocolate,” explained lead author Xiaochen Lin.
In order to gain further insight about the health benefits of chocolate, the researchers reviewed 19 controlled trials involving 1,131 participants who consumed either cocoa flavanols or a placebo.
The studies for this latest review were mostly focused on how flavanols might be able to help the body avoid developing cardiovascular problems, and the results, when tallied up, were pretty heartening (sorry). The meta-study found that, overall, flavanols seem to "reduce dyslipidemia (elevated triglycerides), insulin resistance and systemic inflammation, which are all major subclinical risk factors for cardio metabolic diseases."
We're not entirely sure how exactly flavanols pull off this magic trick. An expert told Harvard Health that "flavanols facilitate brain cell connections and survival, and protect brain cells from toxins or the negative effects of inflammation,” which is likely part of the answer. It seems to be a powerful antioxidant, combating the effects of oxidization on various parts of the body, but the precise ways in which it works on our cells and internal functioning are a still up for scientific investigation.
Unfortunately, this isn't the beginning of dark chocolate as a maintenance strategy for heart disease sufferers. The key ingredient required for medical help, flavanols themselves, are often not actually present in commercial chocolate. Medscape points out that flavonols can often be stripped from the cacao bean in the process of making it into chocolate, even in dark chocolate. It's a mistake to believe that higher-cocoa chocolates mean more flavanols; a study from 2016 at the University of Reading found that there's actually no real correlation between flavanol levels and cocoa percentages. While milk chocolates did have fewer flavanols than dark chocolates, the flavanol levels didn't continue to increase as you went up the percentage scale; 90 percent chocolate was found to have around the same flavanol amount as 50 percent. (The researchers didn't publish the levels of the flavanols they tested, as all tests were anonymous.)
The other thing to remember, as the scientists in charge of the meta-analysis reminded us, is that the 19 studies are still very small, and can't be used for big conclusions just yet.
John Finley, an adjunct professor of nutrition and food sciences at Louisiana State University, said cocoa flavanols may be beneficial because they fight off inflammation, which is linked to diabetes and heart disease.
Cocoa "is likely to be beneficial along with other approaches to improving health," he said. But, he added, "Cocoa is frequently combined with high-sugar products, which would be likely to cancel any benefits."
Finley, who was not involved with the study, recommends taking cocoa flavanols through cocoa supplements, they are available in sugar-free forms, or as an addition to otherwise beneficial foods. "I actually add it to oatmeal every day," he said, sprinkling on 25 grams of cocoa; roughly 2 rounded tablespoons.
"I also suggest the extra-dark cocoa. It tastes better and may have more benefits," Finley said.