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Conventionally viewed as an indulgent treat, chocolate may seem like one of the last foods that could benefit heart health. However, chocolate could have its place in healthy desserts after all.

A study published in July 2020 adds to the evidence that regularly eating chocolate may actually lower our risk of cardiovascular disease. Why? When it’s dark and minimally sweetened, chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which have a wide range of protective effects. 

Healthy Desserts For The Heart

For this study, researchers analyzed the relationship between chocolate consumption and coronary artery disease, where the heart’s own blood vessels become blocked. Overall, eating chocolate at least once per week was linked to an eight percent reduction in coronary artery disease risk. This was compared to consuming chocolate less than weekly, but the percentage of cacao was not specified. A total of 366, 289 participants were included, with an average follow-up time of nine years. 

It’s not the only study concluding in favor of chocolate and its cocoa flavonoids. In a large prospective study involving almost 21 thousand people, higher chocolate consumption was again linked to protective effects. Being in the top fifth for chocolate intake was tied to a 23 percent lower risk of stroke. Additionally, there was a 14 percent smaller risk of coronary artery disease. The top fifth encompassed intakes from 16 to 99 grams per day.

A higher “dose” in this study may have created an effect stronger than seen in the July 2020 paper. An analysis of nine studies made by the same authors found a 45 percent lower risk of cardiovascular mortality associated with greater chocolate consumption too. 

Chocolate As A Treatment

Additionally, a crossover trial tested the effects of chocolate as a “treatment.” Here, researchers prescribed 22 grams of cocoa powder and 16 grams of dark chocolate daily. Both the treatment and control groups ate a standardized average American diet. This was controlled for fiber, caffeine, and theobromine (a type of methylxanthine). Chocolate supplementation reduced cholesterol oxidation and increased “good” cholesterol and antioxidant capacity. 

Even better, chocolate may make the heart-healthy habit of exercise more enjoyable. Another cross-over study involving nine healthy men compared the effects of 40 grams of dark and white chocolate on exercise performance. Dark chocolate, but not white chocolate, significantly increased the distance they cycled in a two-minute time trial. It also increased the efficiency of their bodies’ ability to use oxygen. White chocolate does not contain significant amounts of cocoa flavonoids. It is not really chocolate, as it only contains cocoa butter, milk solids, milk fat, sugar, and vanilla.

The major mechanism underneath these benefits was most likely increased blood vessel dilation boosting oxygen flow. Another part of these effects may have been a rise in the availability of free fatty acids, allowing for more energy production. 

Cocoa Flavonoids And Insulin Resistance

Some research on the cardiovascular benefits of chocolate has also revealed reduced insulin resistance. One small Italian study compared the effects of flavanol-rich dark chocolate to white chocolate over two weeks, to determine if there was any difference.

All had impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), and all consumed 100 grams of chocolate every day. Only the dark chocolate significantly increased insulin sensitivity and improved the function of beta-cells, the pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Long-term elevation of blood sugar eventually leads to damaged, poorly functioning beta-cells, contributing to the progression of IGT to diabetes. White chocolate was not described as producing any beneficial effects.   

How Flavonoids Help

Why chocolate? By weight, cocoa has the highest flavonol concentration out of all foods. These flavanols, which are a category of flavonoid, have been shown in previous research to improve blood vessel health, inhibit inappropriate clotting, and protect heart tissue. Another class of phytochemical, methylxanthines, can benefit cardiovascular function.

Additionally, polyphenols help to lower blood pressure, while the predominant fatty acid in chocolate, stearic acid, reduces the size of platelets. These benefits are currently more important than ever, as inappropriate blood clotting and hypoxia are major issues with severe COVID-19 cases

However, the sugar and dairy added to commercial chocolate products is likely to reduce the effects of its beneficial components. Sugar-sweetened dairy foods may increase inflammation and promote weight gain, which can have consequences including arthritis. The alkalinization process also results in the loss of 60 percent of flavonoids. The best chocolate has a cocoa/cacao percentage of at least 70 percent, a bitter flavor (flavanols are bitter), and is preferably raw. 

Cocoa flavonoids have shown an indirect antioxidant effect, by increasing expression of Nrf2. Nrf2 is known as a transcription factor. It turns up many genes responsible for the production of our own antioxidants. As oxidative free radicals are an unavoidable byproduct of cellular energy production, we must keep them in balance with antioxidants. Otherwise, tissue damage, inflammation, and accelerated aging can occur. 

The Healthy Dessert-Friendly Sirtfood Diet

Dark chocolate is one of the most well-known inclusions in the Sirtfood Diet, recently made popular by the possibility that it was the secret to singer Adele’s weight loss. The Sirtfood Diet focuses on including polyphenol-rich foods that activate enzymes in the sirtuin family.

This ramps up metabolism and may have anti-aging effects. Strawberries, blueberries, red wine, dark chocolate, onions, parsley, celery, arugula, and citrus fruits are some of the foods on the menu. For example, a recipe on the diet’s official site, the Sirtfood Bites, combines dark chocolate and cocoa powder with walnuts, dates, turmeric, olive oil, and vanilla. If you’re on the ketogenic diet and this recipe isn’t for you, other healthy dessert options include chocolate mug cake

Prioritizing polyphenols and other “non-essential” (i.e., not vitamins) phytonutrients isn’t a new trend. In 2004, researchers proposed a dietary phytochemical index, to formally quantify these “non-essential” nutrients. The DPI would count the percentage of calories consumed from phytochemical-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and wine. Some foods, such as olive oil, get partial credit, while refined carbohydrates and animal products would get a zero score. 

Eating Well

Eating well doesn’t have to be boring, especially as you can include chocolate rich in flavonoids as a small snack or ingredient in healthy desserts. Just remember the four criteria: low sugar, at least 70 percent cocoa, bitter flavor notes, and raw when possible. 

Alexandra Preston

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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