In a culture bombarded with sugar, chocolate can be a tricky food to figure out. While highly processed and sugary foods should be avoided in excess, the cacao bean plant (Theobroma cacao) itself has many reported health benefits. So should you eat it?

Our naturopathic doctors weigh in with contemporary research on chocolate or cacao to help you understand how and why chocolate can be good for your health.

Panamanian History of Chocolate and Health

The idea that chocolate might be good for you stems from studies of the Kuna Indians, who live on islands off the coast of Panama, explains Dr. Laura Enfield, ND. They have a low risk of cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, given their weight and salt intake. Researchers realized that it was not their genes that were cardioprotective because those who moved away from the Kuna islands developed high blood pressure and heart disease at typical rates. Something in their island environment must have kept their blood pressure from rising.

Higher Cacao = Better Benefits

“These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects” notes Enfield, going on to cite a study from Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center. “Dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation: Data represent the first human trials examining the impact of dark chocolate consumption on cognition and other brain functions.”  The compound theobromine, found in high amounts in dark chocolate, is likely responsible for the cognitive effects.

A Habit for Heart Health

Research evaluated long-term habitual chocolate consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. The study found many chocolate users to have a lower risk for cardiac and stroke events and concluded: “There does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk.”

Dark Chocolate, Less Depression

Another study led by UCL in Canada demonstrated that 70% of respondents reported lower depressive symptoms within two 24-hour periods of eating dark chocolate, and 25% of high-level chocolate eaters consuming all kinds of chocolate reported lesser depressive symptoms. People who ate only milk chocolate, or no chocolate, reported no improvement.

Chocolate, Switzerland, and Stress

Dr. Michelle Sexton, ND describes a study by the Nestle company in Switzerland on chocolate and stress inhibition. Researchers noted “20 grams of dark chocolate twice per day reduced cortisol, the primary “stress” hormone.” This should make chocolate lovers happy!

Chocolate and Cannabinoids

“Anandamide is a feel-good lipid transmitter named after the Sanskrit word for bliss, Ananda” explains Dr. Sexton. “This is one of the body’s natural cannabinoids. Chocolate may contain anandamide, and the cacao bean has also been shown to have compounds that inhibit the breakdown of anandamide, thus beneficially affecting mood.” Chocolate contains a number of psychoactive ingredients that produce feelings of euphoria, similar to that of anandamide. It also contains phenylethylamine, a neuromodulator that is believed to be important for regulating mood.

Cacao Polyphenols

Dr. Bryant Esquejo, ND points out the antioxidants and polyphenols in chocolate. Cacao polyphenols have been shown to help reduce intestinal inflammation, in a partnership with antioxidants that can inhibit lipid peroxidation and protect against LDL cholesterol.  

Chocolate for Brain Food

In the simplest terms, Dr. Sarah Murphy ND describes the chocolate effect: “It boosts serotonin = makes you happy.” In more direct terms, chocolate, or specifically cacao has been reported to have numerous positive effects on the brain. In addition to mood-boosting and stress lowering, studies have shown, “flavonoids preserve cognitive abilities during aging in rats, lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and decrease the risk of stroke in humans.”

Muscles, Chocolate, and More

But Dr. Murphy says the benefits of chocolate don’t stop at the brain, and also continue on to the body since chocolate is high in magnesium. Magnesium is vital to healthy muscles and nerves, as well as your bones, blood sugar, and heart.

Not all Chocolate is Equal

Remember that it’s the cacao that’s good for you, not the added milk, or sugar. Read the ingredients before choosing your chocolate bar, and look for higher percentages of “dark” chocolate to get the added nutritional benefits. White chocolate isn’t really cacao but is cacao butter with lots of sugar. So it will not have the properties described above, although it might still make you happy!  

While the health benefits of chocolate have been investigated, don’t take this as a blanket recommendation to eat more sugar!  Raw cacao powder can be added to smoothies for the health benefit with no sugar added!

Realize a Healthy California would like to thank Dr. Laura Enfield, ND, Dr. Michelle Sexton, ND, Dr. Sarah Murphy, ND, and Dr. Bryant Esquejo, ND for their contributions. 

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