Carla Ferrell, MS,RD

Dark chocolate is appreciated for its rich essence. It is used in many recipes to enhance the texture and flavor of candies, baked goods, and beverages. Its history also suggests potential health benefits such as reducing cavity formation, managing inflammation, enhancing mood, maintaining normal glucose levels, and improving cardiovascular risk factors. The potential health benefits of chocolate are based upon its composition (Badrie et al, 2015).

The seeds of the cacao tree will differ in composition and characteristics depending on their genetic disposition and country of origin (Badrie et al, 2015). The dried and fermented seeds (beans) are referred to as cocoa (Badrie at al, 2015). Cocoa is combined with cocoa butter and sugar to form chocolate, which contains a higher refined sugar and fat content (Badrie at al, 2015). Cocoa may exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity based on its high polyphenol content (Cooper et al, 2007). Polyphenol levels are typically higher in dark chocolate and lower in more processed sources of cocoa ( Cooper et al, 2007). The high polyphenol and heart-healthy fat content of chocolate is potentially beneficial for health, but the increased calorie, refined sugar, and high saturated fat content are characteristics of concern.

Research suggests that including dark chocolate as part of a healthy diet can have a positive impact on cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels (Noad et al, 2016). Since diets high in polyphenol content are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, the high polyphenol content of dark chocolate is hypothesized to be the contributing factor. The Polyphenol Intervention Trial (PPhIT) compared the effects of a low polyphenol (less than 2 portions of fruits and vegetables) and a high polyphenol diets (6 portions of fruit and vegetable, including berries and 50 gm dark chocolate) in patients diagnosed with hypertension (Noad et al, 2016). The findings indicate improvements in microvascular blood flow, a reduction in low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and a downward trend in systolic blood pressure in patients consuming the high polyphenol diet (Noad et al, 2016).

The findings in the PPhiT study noted cardiovascular improvements based on the overall polyphenol content of the participants’ diet. Additional research is necessary to isolate the effects of dark chocolate on these cardiovascular risk factors, overall heart health, and mortality. Current research suggests that adding dark chocolate to a diet high in fruit and vegetables, is well-tolerated and may help to lower cardiovascular risks in patients diagnosed with hypertension(Noad et al, 2016). Since research is limited, caution should be used in patients with multiple medical or chronic conditions. However, if dark chocolate consumption is going to be included as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, ongoing research is essential to determining specific recommendations for its consumption. (Badrie et al, 2015). Perhaps future guidelines will allow consumers to enjoy this “guilty” pleasure in moderation.

Badrie, N., Bekele, F., Sikora, E., & Sikora, M. (n.d.). Cocoa Agronomy, Quality, Nutritional, and Health Aspects. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 55(5), 620–659.

Cooper, K. A., Campos Giminez, E., Jiminez Alvarez, D., Nagy, K., Donovan, J.L. and Williamson, G. (2007). Rapid reversed phase-ultra performance liquid chromatography analysis of the major cocoa polyphenols and inter-relationships of their concentrations in chocolate. J. Agric. Food Chem. 55:2841–284

Noad, R. L., Rooney, C., McCall, D., Young, I. S., McCance, D., McKinley, M. C., Woodside, J. V., McKeown, P.P. (2016). Beneficial effect of a polyphenol-rich diet on cardiovascular risk: a randomized control trial. Heart. 102(17)1371-1379.