All kinds of chocolate have been used for centuries for healing and pleasure, but dark chocolate seems to have the most to offer when protecting your health. The latest research suggests that cocoa beans, used to make chocolate bars and other mouthwatering confections, contain health-promoting chemicals called polyphenols. These chemicals, also found in green tea and various fruits and vegetables, have powerful antioxidant benefits.
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In general, studies have shown that cocoa and chocolate reduce inflammation and prevent the formation of blood clots. Scientists at the University of California and Mars Company found that cocoa’s chemicals relax smooth muscles and promote vascular dilation—both important to maintaining adequate blood flow through the body. Unsaturated fatty acids found in cocoa butter decrease LDL, or bad cholesterol, according to a study published in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. According to an article published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, chocolate contains theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine, which send signals to the brain to suppress appetite and create a feeling of fullness.
Specific to cancer, we have no human trials demonstrating benefit during cancer treatment. However, cocoa has consistently shown an ability to increase serum antioxidant status, protect DNA and the immune system, and increase cancer cells’ death in test tubes, thus theoretically reducing cancer risk. In the journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling (2011), the authors summarized the health benefits of cocoa and chocolate:
A diet consisting of 10% cocoa enhanced antioxidant defenses in rats’ thymus and positively influenced several immune system markers, including B cells and T-helper cells. These two white blood cells support anti-cancer activity in the body. It is believed that flavonoids are most likely the active ingredient in cocoa responsible for keeping the immune system bolstered.
Flavanols found in cocoa may impact the initiation stage of cancer. A study examining the radical scavenging capacity of 10 beverages containing antioxidants, cocoa mix ranked fifth, behind coffee, prune juice, and green tea, but ahead of grape juice and other types of tea. In another study, dark chocolate consumption significantly improved how cells defend themselves against oxidative stress. In this study, ten healthy subjects consumed 45 grams of dark chocolate or white chocolate for 14 days. Oxidative damage to cellular DNA was reduced in the dark chocolate group 2 hours after consumption, but those effects dropped off after 22 hours.
Cocoa polyphenols can inhibit heterocyclic amine activity (the cancer-causing compounds in grilled meats). Researchers found that a cocoa polyphenol extract stopped one of the pro-inflammatory cytokines involved in cancer’s developmental process.
While the news about chocolate may be sweet, you might want to think twice before you dive into a whole box of Godiva chocolates. Most importantly, the studies focus on cocoa and don’t account for other ingredients found in chocolate bars—fat, sugar, and calories! For now, I’d suggest that you don’t toss chocolate in with fruits and vegetables as health-promoting dietary choices and be sure to choose dark chocolate made of at least 70% cocoa. The higher percentage of cocoa, the more cancer-fighting compounds you will enjoy! Here are some guidelines to help you sift through the myriad of brands of dark chocolate bars and powders on the market:
- Look for cacao at 100%. This will be your most pure form of chocolate.
- Avoid chocolate that has “alkali processed” on the label. This process removes much of the cancer-protecting chemicals.
- Choose high percentage chocolate. Aim for 70% or higher cacao solids.
- Avoid chocolate that contains added milkfat or oils.
- Choose organic or fair-trade chocolate to support regulation of cocoa beans.
Quick Pick: Organic cocao powder
Quick Pick: Hu Salty Chocolate bars
- Labels like “Dark Chocolate” or “Special Dark Chocolate” confuse consumers! These chocolates have more added sugar and fat and lower levels of cocoa.