It’s not your imagination – chocolate science is always in the news. There have been more than 4,000 studies on chocolate and health since the 1970s, according to a quick search of the online medical database PubMed, with more coming out every year.
But is chocolate a miracle food? According to registered dietitian Rana Daoud, no.
There is some evidence of benefits to the antioxidants, called flavanols, which are found in chocolate. For example, a 2017 systematic review of 35 studies on chocolate and blood pressure found a “small but statistically significant” lowering of blood pressure in otherwise healthy people. But that same review found that the studies were mostly of short duration and none of them measured the effects of chocolate on the health consequences of blood pressure – like heart attacks or strokes.
Although chocolate does contain flavanols, many of those can be destroyed in the manufacturing process, according to Daoud and the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science. (Yes, it’s affiliated with the Mars chocolate company.) The same compounds are also found in ordinary foods like tea and blueberries.
And make no mistake – a big part of what makes your Easter bunny so delicious is all the sugar and fat it contains. The Lindt milk chocolate bunny in the shiny gold paper is 540 calories per bunny.
Dark chocolate is not that much better, from a calorie point of view, said Daoud. “If you read the labels for dark chocolate versus milk chocolate, the calories are the same,” she said, though it likely contains more flavanols.
The “70 per cent” label you might see on a bar of dark chocolate might not mean what you think either, according to Jordan LeBel, associate professor of food marketing at Concordia University. “You have to understand what 70 per cent means on a bar of chocolate. It includes cocoa solids and cocoa fat.”
If you really want the health benefits of chocolate’s flavanols, you could add cacao powder to a skim milk latte rather than eating a chocolate bar, said Daoud.
Or, just enjoy it as a treat. “There’s no harm in having treats here and there,” she said. “I often tell people to get the chocolate that you enjoy. Ultimately, you’re getting the chocolate to savour, to really have the pleasure.”
So why do we keep researching chocolate?
In a word, marketing. “Really, you could argue that people are using the health side of it as a marketing tool. To tell you, ‘Hey, buy our chocolate because it’s also healthy for you,’” said Alex Marangoni, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Guelph’s department of food science.
“Everybody loves chocolate. And maybe they overeat chocolate. And so they feel very happy when somebody says there’s a little bit of health associated with chocolate.”
“You’re buying a clear conscience and it works,” said LeBel. Sugary snacks like chocolate bars are increasingly facing competition from healthier snack options, he said. While he doesn’t think anyone buys chocolate primarily because they think it’s healthy, adding it on as an extra benefit “can have a lot of impact on sales.”
The industry sponsors a lot of studies on chocolate too. An analysis by Vox found that of 100 studies sponsored by Mars, 98 of them had positive results. “Industry-funded studies tend to come out with results favouring the sponsor’s interests,” said Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University in an email.
We also want to believe.
“Everybody LOVES chocolate. Wouldn’t it be great if it were a health food, not a guilty pleasure?” she said.