Chocolate, that sweet treat that gets us in its sugary grip from early childhood, is typically viewed as a rare indulgence that we consume to reward — or soothe — ourselves. But numerous studies have shown that we don’t have to relinquish it to the occasional event. In fact, regular consumption can do a body good.
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“Chocolate contains healthy compounds that are also found in many other healthful foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, all of which are important for good health,” says Andy De Santis, a Toronto-based registered dietitian.
“If someone follows a very strong, balanced diet, chocolate may offer a small additional benefit.”
But before you start scarfing chocolate bars and left over bunnies from Easter, there are some caveats. For starters, in order to reap any health benefits from chocolate, it needs to be made from at least 60 per cent cacao, De Santis says.
“Cocoa powder and dark chocolate (containing 60 per cent or more cacao) are high in a group of compounds known as polyphenols, specifically a subgroup of polyphenols known as flavonoids, which are found in a number of other healthful foods.”
They’re shown to have antioxidative activity, free radical scavenging capacity, coronary heart disease prevention, and anticancer activity, he says. While some flavonoids exhibit potential for anti–human immunodeficiency virus functions.
Of course, portion control is also important when it comes to chocolate. In order to reap the benefits without piling on dangerous amounts of sugar, consumption should be limited to 10 grams per day.
Here’s a look at four distinct ways chocolate, its flavonoids and other beneficial ingredients can boost health.
#1 Chocolate may reduce cardiovascular disease
In a study published in the journal Heart, researchers found that out of 21,000 people in Norfolk, England, who were tracked for 11 years, 12 per cent of chocolate consumers died or developed cardiovascular disease over the course of the study versus 17.4 per cent of people who didn’t eat chocolate.
While this was an observational study, which means it’s unable to prove cause and effect, Harvard Health Publishing noted that the non-chocolate consumers also had higher average weight, more artery-damaging inflammation, more diabetes, were less physically active and had diets with the least amount of fat. What this could potentially point to is a tendency among chocolate eaters to follow a healthy diet.
#2 Chocolate can relieve inflammation
Inflammation can lead to a number of health issues, like sore muscles, headaches and even more serious diseases. While some inflammation in the body is good because it helps to ward off infection, having too much is dangerous.
This is where chocolate’s flavonoids come into play because they provide antioxidant benefits.
However, even more interesting is how these same flavonoids can modulate intestinal microbiota, thus triggering the growth of good gut bacteria, which supports anti-inflammation in the intestine.
One study noted that “addition of polyphenols to enteral nutrition in patients with inflammatory bowel disease may be beneficial.”
#3 Chocolate may improve cognitive function
Although this is still new territory, some studies have examined the role of chocolate in cognitive function.
Consumption of dark chocolate (made from at least 70 per cent cacao and 30 per cent cane sugar) has been shown to modulate brain frequencies, enhancing neuroplasticity and delivering brain health 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,” Dr. Lee S. Berk, associate dean of research affairs, School of Allied Health Professions at Loma Linda University, said to Science Daily.
Another study found that polyphenols in chocolate exert antioxidant effects, increasing neurological function and preventing age-dependant damage.
#4 Chocolate can make you happy
Anecdotally, this may seem like a given, but what many likely don’t know is that chocolate actually contains the same happy-boosting chemicals that our bodies naturally create.
That is, chocolate contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and tryptophan, the same amino acid that’s in turkey that gives you a happy, cozy feeling — and is credited with helping you fall asleep.
Another family of chemicals, phenylethylamine, is present in chocolate in small amounts. These are the same chemicals our brains supposedly make when we fall in love, which could explain why so many people love chocolate.