Chocoholics celebrate anytime a new study touts the health benefits of the sweet treat. (You mean chowing down on a candy bar can help my heart?) But there’s a reason doctors aren’t telling patients to go to the nearest store and pick up some Hershey’s Kisses. When it comes to your health, chocolate is a bit of a mixed bag: It’s packed with antioxidants, but many varieties also include a substantial amount of sugar. So we dove right into the
chocolate fountain scientific research to outline the pros and cons of indulging your next craving.
The Sweet Spot
Most the health benefits of chocolate come from cacao, specifically the flavonoids in cacao. They're responsible for chocolate's distinct taste, and they protect your body from a number of diseases, including asthma, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Thanks to flavonoids, scientists have linked cacao consumption (and eating chocolate) to the following health benefits:
1. It can strengthen your heart.
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow, two important aspects of having a healthy heart. Cocoa, blood pressure, and vascular function. Sudano I, Flammer AJ, Roas S. Current hypertension reports, 2012, Nov.;14(4):1534-3111.
Cocoa flavanol intake improves endothelial function and Framingham Risk Score in healthy men and women: a randomised, controlled, double-masked trial: the Flaviola Health Study. Sansone R, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Heuel J. The British journal of nutrition, 2015, Sep.;114(8):1475-2662. In one cool study, when scuba divers ate dark chocolate before their dive, their blood flow actually increased (as opposed to normal divers, whose blood flow decreased) after they came back up to the surface. The effect of pre-dive ingestion of dark chocolate on endothelial function after a scuba dive. Theunissen S, Balestra C, Boutros A. Diving and hyperbaric medicine, 2015, Nov.;45(1):1833-3516.
2. It can slow memory loss.
As we get older, we can seem more forgetful. But an exciting study found cocoa flavonoids could put the brakes on age-related memory loss—the normal lapses you have from time to time, not the more serious gaps that happen with Alzheimer's. Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Sokolov AN, Pavlova MA, Klosterhalfen S. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 2013, Jun.;37(10 Pt 2):1873-7528.
3. It can help you cope with stress.
Turning to chocolate when you're feeling overwhelmed may not be so bad after all. Dark chocolate helps regulate stress, so you may want to keep a small stash in your desk drawer. Dark chocolate intake buffers stress reactivity in humans. Wirtz PH, von Känel R, Meister RE. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2014, Mar.;63(21):1558-3597.
4. It can reduce your risk for diabetes.
The polyphenols in chocolate help regulate your blood sugar by improving insulin resistance, which ultimately lowers your risk for diabetes. Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. Kwok CS, Boekholdt SM, Lentjes MA. Heart (British Cardiac Society), 2015, Jun.;101(16):1468-201X. Cocoa, blood pressure, and vascular function. Sudano I, Flammer AJ, Roas S. Current hypertension reports, 2012, Nov.;14(4):1534-3111.
Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Hooper L, Kay C, Abdelhamid A. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2012, Feb.;95(3):1938-3207.
5. It can help you get a move on.
Well, you need to be pregnant, and it's your baby that will be doing a little two-step in your tummy. Studies show that babies move around more when their mothers eat chocolate. The effects of different concentrations of cocoa in the chocolate intaken by the mother on fetal heart rate. Buscicchio G, Lorenzi S, Tranquilli AL. The journal of maternal-fetal & neonatal medicine : the official journal of the European Association of Perinatal Medicine, the Federation of Asia and Oceania Perinatal Societies, the International Society of Perinatal Obstetricians, 2013, Apr.;26(15):1476-4954.
The Bitter(sweet) Truth
There's one major caveat when talking about the benefits of cacao: Not all chocolate is created equal. Extensive processing, as well as the added sugar and dairy in milk chocolate, can strip cacao of its nutritional punch. So before you run out to stock your cabinets with chocolate, make sure you're aware of these potential health risks:
1. It can be addictive.
Like most desserts, chocolate can be hard to put down. And one recent study found it was the most addictive foods for teens. A new insight into food addiction in childhood obesity. Keser A, Yüksel A, Yeşiltepe Mutlu G. The Turkish journal of pediatrics, , undefined.;57(3):0041-4301. As with everything, moderation is key—even if chocolate does have some awesome health benefits.
2. It may be bad for your skin.
If you're prone to acne, loading up on chocolate may make matters worse, thanks to the high fat content of most milk and white chocolate. Dark chocolate exacerbates acne. Vongraviopap S, Asawanonda P. International journal of dermatology, 2015, Dec.;():1365-4632. But chocolate probably isn't the culprit if you break out on your period. In that case, a drop in estrogen pumps up oil production, which leads to extra pimples.
3. It can cause kidney stones.
That's because chocolate contains oxalates, which have been linked to kidney stones. Lowering urinary oxalate excretion to decrease calcium oxalate stone disease. Holmes RP, Knight J, Assimos DG. Urolithiasis, 2015, Nov.;44(1):2194-7236. But you only need to worry if you're already at risk for developing them.
4. It can make you anxious.
If you eat enough chocolate (we're talking at least 5 cups of most varieties), you can get an energy boost. But you may also have to deal with the negative buzz-related side effects, like anxiety, dehydration, diarrhea, irritability, and nervousness.
The Bottom Line
These are just a few of the literally hundreds of studies on chocolate—and since they fall all over the map (it's good! It's bad! It's meh!), there's little we can definitively conclude.
That said, most pro-chocolate research says you should opt for dark over milk or white if you have the choice (and you're trying to be healthy). Look for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao—the higher, the better. Cacao nibs are also on the healthier side of the chocolate spectrum. And at the end of the day, regardless of the study, chocolate is best eaten in moderation.
Originally published July 2012. Updated February 2016.