The serious side of chocolate

Major benefits that rival today’s top superfoods

These days, chocolate is a media darling. It’s almost universally acknowledged as a diet-friendly indulgence, a small bite with benefits, a not-so-forbidden fruit.

But all those cutesy headlines you see touting its benefits are actually shortchanging chocolate of the nutritional gravitas it so richly deserves.

Think about it. No one talks about broccoli this way. Or blueberries. Or green tea. Why?

Because news reports take the disease-fighting power of those foods seriously. And rightly so.

But for some reason, chocolate has yet to command this sort of respect from the medical media.

Which is a shame, because chocolate is far more than just “candy.” In fact, if you choose the right kind, it’s a veritable fountain of youth.

And today, I’ll tell you about some of the latest hard-hitting research on this natural life-saver.

Fend off heart attacks, diabetes, and deadly strokes…with just two ounces a day

Let me start with chocolate’s most researched benefit: It’s one of the surest ways to fend off heart disease.

Chocolate is one of the most powerful antioxidants on the planet. It has an ORAC value greater than 10,000—one of the highest scores of any food substance yet discovered. (ORAC is a measure of antioxidant capacity.) That’s because chocolate is packed with polyphenols—flavonols in particular. And these powerful compounds can lower blood pressure, fight inflammation, guard against deadly clots, and protect your metabolic health.

So the fact that chocolate is good for your heart isn’t exactly a surprise. What may be surprising is just how beneficial it actually is.

In 2011, the British Medical Journal published a meta-analysis in which researchers reviewed seven different studies featuring over 100,000 subjects. And they found that  people who ate the most chocolate benefited from significant reductions in both heart disease, diabetes, and stroke—by 37 percent, 31 percent, and 29 percent, respectively.1

And these results held even after researchers took participants’ age, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, and other dietary factors into account.

Of course, the main pitfall of this study is that it didn’t account for what type of chocolate subjects were eating. And, as you know, there’s a world of difference between a Hershey bar and 100 percent pure, unsweetened cocoa powder (more on that below).

Which also raises the inevitable question…

Doesn’t chocolate make you fat?

The answer, according to one 2012 study, is no. Quite the opposite, in fact: This research found that eating chocolate twice a week is linked with a lower BMI.2 And yet another study from 2013 revealed a similar trend among chocolate-eating teens.3

So what’s the secret? Researchers generally chalk chocolate’s metabolic benefits up to its  abundance of flavonols. (Those disease-fighting antioxidant compounds I mentioned earlier.) And there’s no question that they’re the power players behind cocoa’s growing credibility.

But research published in the journal FASEB this past February suggests that there may be more to the story than that…

This clinical study featured 44 overweight men who ate just over two ounces of dark chocolate daily for four weeks. But half of these men ate chocolate that was enriched with extra flavonols.

Results showed that dark chocolate consumption made subjects’ arteries more flexible. And it also prevented white blood cells from sticking to blood vessel walls (another major cause of heart attacks).4

But adding extra flavonols didn’t make a difference. Plain old pure dark chocolate was every bit as effective.

This isn’t the first study to reveal that cocoa’s power isn’t due entirely to its flavonols..  Another recent study turned up similar results. But this time, researchers studied chocolate’s benefits beyond heart health and weight…

Two-pronged protection from dementia

A 2013 study revealed that drinking cocoa can boost the impact that blood flow has on your brain cell activity.5 This is a phenomenon known as neurovascular coupling (NVC). And this research demonstrated exactly what makes NVC so critical.

It was a double-blind trial that featured 60 elderly subjects. Researchers randomly assigned subjects to two groups. One group drank two cups of cocoa (containing 609 mg of flavonoids per serving) for 30 days. The other group drank the same amount of cocoa, but with fewer flavonoids. (Only 13 mg per serving.)

The subjects also received sonograms to document blood flow changes in the brain—that is, NVC—both at rest and in response to mental tasks.

And wouldn’t you know? Regardless of how many flavonoids were in it, drinking cocoa increased NVC during cognitive tasks—especially in subjects whose blood flow to the brain was already impaired. Higher levels of NVC were also associated with better attention and memory scores in the subjects. And they also showed less physical damage to the brain as well.

You have to admit—it’s a pretty impressive discovery. And it makes another study published just a few months before it all the more promising.

In that study, researchers took polyphenols from commercial cocoa powder and observed their effects on cells in the laboratory. As it turns out, cocoa polyphenols guarded against brain cell death resulting from oxidative stress. (Which happens to be one of the main driving factors behind diseases like vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.)

In fact, the study’s author went so far as to say that cocoa may beat other famous flavonol sources—like green tea—when it comes to preventive power.6

Animal research published in the last couple of months seems to confirm this potential—showing that cocoa extracts can beat back beta amyloid deposits, too.7 Granted, without solid clinical evidence in humans, scientists still don’t know how deep chocolate’s neuroprotective potential runs.

But I’d still consider this a pretty solid start.

Slash your risk of cancer death

As you may have guessed by now, the evidence is piling up in support of chocolate’s anti-cancer potential, too.

Once again, this benefit boils down to polyphenols. Back in 2003, a team of Cornell researchers compared the flavonol content of cocoa to other renowned cancer-fighting powerhouses—specifically, green tea and red wine. And the results were a little shocking.

And they were surprised to find cocoa’s ability to scavenge for cancer-causing free radicals was the highest. By a very wide margin, too. Almost twice that of red wine. Up to three times as high as green tea. And a whopping five times as high as black tea.8

Then, just a few years later, the study responsible for really igniting the cocoa craze came out.

Researchers from Harvard joined up with Mars (who else?) to study the Kuna Indians living off the coast of Panama. Among other findings in their study, they discovered that the Kuna who remained on their island and ate a traditional high-cocoa diet suffered lower cancer rates than the Kuna who migrated to the mainland.

And I don’t mean a little bit lower, either. In fact, cancer death rates on the island were 630 percent lower than they were on the mainland.9

Granted, these aren’t placebo-controlled clinical trials we’re talking about. And both laboratory and epidemiological research have their fair share of shortcomings. (A problem I addressed in great detail last month.) Not to mention that a lot of the research has been funded by companies like Mars and Hershey.

That said, the evidence is compelling enough for me to recommend chocolate to my patients—and to you. But you still need to be smart about it. And that means consuming wisely—in more ways than one.

How to have your chocolate and eat it too

First, be judicious about the type of chocolate you choose. It’s true that many of cocoa’s benefits seem to occur independently of flavonol content. But you still want to look for chocolate that’s as unadulterated as possible (which means the majority of its polyphenols will be intact). And whatever you do, avoid products with excessive sugar—or worse, high fructose corn syrup.

That means skipping white and milk chocolate in favor of pure cacao—at least 80 to 90 percent. But I recommend going for 100 percent cocoa powder.

Is it going to taste good? Not by itself—I’m not going to lie. But that’s easy to fix.

Just mix it with unsweetened almond or coconut milk, along with a little bit of stevia (just enough to cut the bitterness). The resulting concoction is one of my favorite treats.

Healthy, simple… and most definitely delicious.


1. Buitrago-Lopez A, et al. “Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis.” BMJ. 2011 Aug 26;343:d4488.

2. Golomb BA, et al. “Association between more frequent chocolate consumption and lower body mass index.” Arch Intern Med. 2012 Mar 26;172(6):519-21.

3. “Association between chocolate consumption and fatness in European adolescents.” Nutrition. 2013 Oct 17.

4. Esser D, et al. “Dark chocolate consumption improves leukocyte adhesion factors and vascular function in overweight men.” FASEB J. 2014 Mar;28(3):1464-73.

5. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013 Aug 7.

6. Cocoa powder triggers neuroprotective and preventive effects in a human Alzheimer’s Disease model by modulating BDNF signaling pathway. J Cell Biochem. 2013 Mar 28.

7. Wang J, et al. “Cocoa Extracts Reduce Oligomerization of Amyloid-β: Implications for Cognitive Improvement in Alzheimer’s Disease.” J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;41(2):643-50.

8. Lee KW, et al. “Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine.” J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3;51(25):7292-5.

9. Bayard V, et al. “Does flavonol intake influence mortality from nitric oxide-dependent processes? Ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, and cancer in Panama.” Int J Med Sci. 2007 Jan 27;4(1):53-8.