What are the REAL health benefits of chocolate?
The perfect morning for a chocoholic is the one that starts with an article on chocolate. Especially where chocolate is said to improve human’s health. After all, there is no bigger satisfaction than eating your favorite food and doing good to your body at the same time.
This year chocolate lovers could choose among a vast range of health benefits.
The most popular ones were:
- Diabetes Prevention
- Weight Loss
- Sun Protection
- Glowing Skin
- Cough Relief
- Stroke Risk Reduction
- Higher Intelligence
- Improved Blood Flow
Online magazines are nowadays covered with unbelievable titles to induce consumers to eat more and more chocolate, and to feel guilt-free while doing so. These articles are usually based on research showing more positive effects for subjects eating chocolate compared to those who do not.
The results of these studies are the premises of very enthusiastic claims that run around the Internet, but is it all true?
There is no doubt that cacao contains a lot of good substances for the human body (magnesium, calcium, iron, copper, antioxidants). Consuming chocolate high in cacao might also lead to feelings of excitement and alertness. We can call it a super food indeed, but nowhere near a magical cure for disease or a replacement of good habits.
Unfortunately, the articles magnifying the health benefits of chocolate are often misleading, inaccurate and over-the-top.
Here are the 4 main problems with this kind of articles appearing on the media.
Unspecified type of chocolate
While the media suggests that dark chocolate is where the health benefits are found, they fail to give further specifications. With so many different types of dark chocolate on the market, it’s not clear what should be considered “healthy” and what should not.
The percentage of cacao in dark chocolate can range from 35% to 100%. Since the health benefits are associated with the cacao in chocolate, leaning towards a percentage rather than another can make a big difference. At the same time, dark chocolate made by big manufacturers like Lindt and Hershey is known to contain vegetable oils, artificial flavors and chemical additives (probably not the best ingredients to reduce the risk of heart attack or lower blood pressure). Sometimes they also go as far as to include milk fat in their high-percentage dark chocolate bars, which makes a chocolate “dark” only on the packaging.
Even when it comes to the scientific studies, vagueness is usually key.
In a study that links the consumption of chocolate with a lower risk of heart disease, the word “chocolate” appearing on the questionnaires of the participants was as inclusive as it could get:
“Levels of chocolate consumption included the consumption of chocolate bars, chocolate drinks, and chocolate snacks (including confectionery, biscuits, desserts, nutritional supplements, and candy bars).”
No dark chocolate, no cacao percentage, no ingredients specified. Even a protein powder, the chocolate chips in the cookies and a chocolate frosting on a cupcake could make the list.
The rest of the diet is underrated
In the original studies at the base of such exciting titles, there is no consideration whatsoever of the rest of the diet of the participants.
No indication is given about all the other foods ingested during the testing period.
It can be argued that someone eating only high percentages of dark chocolate (then supposedly resulting in great health benefits) is likely to be a person aware of healthy dietary guidelines. A balanced diet and regular physical activity fit in the description of someone that would eat only bars with a cocoa content of 80% and up. Of course, many exceptions can be found. But the problem with these studies is that they credit a food that is eaten once a day in very tiny portions overlooking the effects of the 98% of someone’s diet.
What if those same testers ate significant amount of fruits and vegetables, avoided processed food, drank a lot of water and exercised often WHILE eating dark chocolate regularly?
Difficulties in identifying the original studies
A quick Google search for “health benefits of chocolate” will lead to an endless number of articles. To prove that the enthusiastic titles are actually truth-based, many are the links provided to bring the readers to the original sources. Unfortunately, one or two further steps are enough to get confused and frustrated.
These are the possible scenarios:
- When the Huffington Post indicates that the consumption of chocolate reduces the risk of diabetes (point 4), the link doesn’t go to the original study. It goes to ANOTHER list of health benefits in Women’s Health online magazine. Once landed on this new page, there is no link to gather further info.
- Another case is when the link doesn’t bring to the original study, but simply to the homepage of the entity that conducted the study. To find out if chocolate actually helps lower cholesterol, Best Health Magazine requires a lot of effort by its readers that are presented with the homepage of the University of Illinois and have to find the research paper themselves (left aside that the research was funded by Mars, Inc.).
- A sequence of broken links and inaccessible studies are also the norm.
Click-bait titles followed by claims of moderation
To attract as many readers as possible, most of these articles have pretty impressive titles. They would have anybody click on their links in a matter of seconds.
Interestingly enough, these exciting headlines are ALWAYS followed by a milder tone. After the great news that yet another study has confirmed the magical properties of chocolate, the tone gets more cautious and rational. This usually happens only at the end of the entire read.
Here come the suggestions of moderation, attention to quality, warning to added ingredients, healthy diet in general, regular exercise and so on. Many readers might not even scroll that far down to realize that the results of the research are calmed down by words like “mild results”, “may help”, “needs further research”.
While the consumption of dark chocolate made with simple ingredients should in no way be discouraged, these enthusiastic claims by the media don’t aim to inform and benefit the general public.
They simply follow a specific agenda where the health benefits of chocolate are stretched and exaggerated to push the readers to a larger consume of chocolate and raise sales for the industry.
As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at the New York University, recently said in an article called “How Candy Makers Shape Nutrition Science”:
“The only thing that moves sales is health claims.”
Chocolate of a certain kind is by no mean an unhealthy food, but it is not meant to take care of our health. Regular physical activity, enough sleep, good eating habits and hydration are. It is not a miraculous elixir that can wipe out years of damages made by bad choices, like the media is trying to portray.
Chocolate is a treat, and it should be considered as such.
Do YOU believe in the health benefits of chocolate?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.