So what is the effect of chocolate on the heart?
Well, let us spill the cocoa beans.
The good news is that there are research studies that have demonstrated some cardiac benefits. Previous studies have shown that those who ate chocolate habitually had a lower risk of developing cardiac diseases and strokes in comparison to those who didn’t eat chocolate at all. The underlying mechanism proposed for this benefit is the antioxidant properties of flavonoids that are found in cocoa beans. Antioxidants prevent and repair cell damage caused by free radicals, particularly to the innermost layer of the heart arteries. Furthermore, they prevent the formation of plaque in the arteries and the oxidation of LDL or “bad” cholesterol which is associated with a higher risk of coronary disease.
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate and as well as their antioxidant qualities, flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health. They can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and reduce the ability of blood to be able to clot by making platelets less sticky. As well as chocolate, flavanols are found in a variety of food items including cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.
Is there a bitter twist?
Despite the potential benefits of flavonoids, there is another darker side. The processing of chocolate in the manufacturing process can degrade the quantity of these beneficial chemicals. When mixed together to form milk chocolates, the most popular form, the composition of cocoa solids and hence the antioxidant properties are attenuated. With the high sugar content chocolate is therefore high in calories and high consumption can lead to weight gain.
What about the fat?
And then of course there is the F word. Fat. The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of heart healthy monounsaturated fat but also saturated fats which are linked to LDL and heart disease. By choosing dark chocolate some of the benefits can be maintained. Dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cocoa content is a powerful source of antioxidants and loaded with nutrients. Besides this, the fatty acid profile of dark chocolate is mostly monounsaturated fats. Another great option is pure cocoa. It has no added sugar or fat. You can put it in your smoothie, yogurt or oatmeal and make it super chocolaty.
What do we say?
Our view is that there are reported benefits of cocoa and the antioxidant effects of the flavonoids are likely to have some cardiovascular benefits but this is likely offset by the negative effects of high calories, sugar and the fats in chocolate. Eating modest amounts of chocolate as part of a balanced healthy diet will do no harm and may be of benefit. Giving up chocolate for a month to raise awareness and funds for heart disease is a worthwhile endeavour that we at one heart clinic wholeheartedly support.