Q: I’ve heard that chocolate is a healthy food. Is that true, or do I just wish it were?
A: When it comes to pure chocolate, the news is mostly good. Northwestern University cardiologist Dr. Stephen Devries says, “Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, the same compound that gives plants their vibrant color and reduces cellular damage.” Chocolate also contains antioxidants and other beneficial substances.
Q: With February being American Heart Month and Valentine’s Day, is there a connection between chocolate and heart health?
A: Yes. Studies show the flavonoids in cocoa, an ingredient in chocolate, improve the ratio of good and bad cholesterol in the blood, reducing harmful deposits in the arteries. These substances can also help lower blood pressure.
Q: My brain is happy when I eat chocolate—but is chocolate good for my brain?
A: A study published by the American Academy of Neurology found that chocolate improves blood flow to the brain, which can slow age-related memory changes, as well as reducing the risk of stroke.
Q: Are there any other benefits?
A: The National Institutes of Health reports that research is underway to determine whether flavonoids in chocolate could improve eye disease and lower the risk of cancer. Studies show that chocolate encourages the growth of anti-inflammatory compounds in the digestive tract. And a 2021 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital even found that eating chocolate can help control the appetite.
Q: What about the effect on depression?
A: While some studies found that chocolate could improve mood, others explain that this has nothing to do with the ingredients but is a psychological effect—we enjoy eating chocolate, and that stimulates the release of endorphins, serotonin and other “feel good” chemicals, which cheers us up. Nothing wrong with that! On the other hand, overindulgence can have the opposite effect, making us feel guilty or regretful.
Q: Are certain types of chocolate healthier than others?
A: The amount of natural flavonoids in a particular type of chocolate depends on how it is harvested and processed. Dark chocolate, bittersweet and baking chocolate contain a larger amount of beneficial compounds. Milk chocolate and white chocolate are processed in a way that decreases the flavonoid content.
Q: Does it matter what’s inside those chocolates?
A: Chocolate is often used as a minor ingredient along with less healthy ingredients, such as sugar, butter and other fats. Choose a plain dark chocolate instead, or one in which the other ingredients are healthful, such as chocolate-covered nuts or chocolate-dipped fruit. If you like hot cocoa, prepare it with water or non-fat milk and no more than a small amount of sugar.
Q: If chocolate is good for me, can I eat as much as I want?
A: Chocolate contains saturated fat, though experts say it is a less harmful type than that found in meat, dairy products and certain oils. And as you probably know, chocolate is high in calories. If you eat too much of it, the resulting weight gain could negate the heart health benefits from the flavonoid content.
Q: If I don’t really like chocolate, should I eat it anyway?
A: No—it’s not a medication. Plenty of other fruits and vegetables are rich in flavonoids. And for anyone who eats chocolate, the key is to eat it in place of other less healthy snacks, such as chips and doughnuts, rather than in addition.
Q: How confident are scientists about all these studies?
A: As with so much other nutritional research, learning the full story about the benefits of chocolate is a work in progress. It’s important to know that some studies have used pure cocoa supplements, which is not the same thing as chocolate candy. Continuing research is underway to learn more about the health benefits of chocolate, and about ways certain harvesting and processing techniques could create an even healthier chocolate. That’s great news for chocoholics.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Consult your doctor or dietitian about an eating plan that’s right for you.