Reality check: Does eating chocolate cut risk of stroke?

Darlene Eddy handles a skateboarding chocolate Easter bunny in her store Amazing Chocolates on March 28, 2013 in Hollywood, Florida.
Darlene Eddy handles a skateboarding chocolate Easter bunny in her store Amazing Chocolates on March 28, 2013 in Hollywood, Florida. Darlene Eddy/Getty Images

TORONTO – It’s a study out of chocolate lovers’ dreams: Scottish research said last week that eating a single chocolate bar may help in cutting the risk of stroke.

Just days before the Easter holiday, a Glasgow University study suggested that chocolate in moderation has a direct effect on the brain, opening blood vessels and encouraging blood flow.

Could science throw its support behind this classic guilty pleasure?  Global News looks at the study findings and the verdict from Canadian experts.

The study’s findings:

In the study, published in the journal Neurology, the researchers fed chocolate to their patients while lying down. The scientists measured the speed of blood coursing through the brain’s biggest artery as they ate.

Results showed that chocolate played with carbon dioxide levels, which affected blood vessels and blood flow, the Daily Mail reported in its take on the study.

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There was a change in the stiffness of the blood vessels, the research noted.

It pointed to flavonoids found in chocolate as offering some healthy benefits that fight heart disease.

Flavonoids are antioxidants found in cacao plants, packed with vitamins C and E, along with beta carotene, according to Psychology Today. The seeds’ nutritional value is in line with legumes, whole grains and other seeds.

Sound bite: “We think a reduction in stroke risk may be caused by chocolate changing how brain blood vessels behave. This is plausible because of the flavonoid molecules contained in the chocolate,” the study’s lead author professor Matthew Walters said.

The counter-argument:

Plenty of studies have linked chocolate to lessening heart disease. A study published last August suggested that eating a standard chocolate bar every week could lower a man’s risk of having a stroke by 17 per cent.

In these cases, research pointed to flavonoids again: they may help with decreasing the concentrations of bad cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.

But experts are divided with some disagreeing with the significance of these findings.

Sound bite: “It’s very important for people to take the news on chocolate with a grain of salt,” Richard Libman, vice chair of neurology at the Cushing Neuroscience Institute, told Reuters.

“You can’t start advising people to eat chocolate based on this,” he said.

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In one report on the latest study, Tom Soloman, a neurology professor at Liverpool University said: “We have to take the findings with caution.”

Canadian experts weigh in:

Canadian doctors and nutrition experts may be bursting a chocolate lover’s bubble in debunking these findings.

“This study is attempting to see what mechanism might be in place to explain the potential benefits of chocolate. But it doesn’t go very far in terms of the explanation,” Dr. Rena Mendelson, a Ryerson University nutrition professor, told Global News.

Mendelson has more than 40 years of experience in the field.

Dr. Ali Zentner, a Vancouver-based doctor specializing in cardiac risk and obesity, tells Canadians that they shouldn’t take these findings to heart.

“Chocolate is a treat, not a treatment,” Zentner said.

“If the argument is that chocolate has flavonoids and antioxidants, you can get that from other foods,” she said.

Healthier options are other flavonoid-rich foods; Zentner listed a few off the top of his head: lettuce, basil, cranberries, garlic, kale, asparagus, beans.

The other factor at play is caffeine in chocolate, Zentner said. Green tea and coffee may have similar results as chocolate did on these patients, she guesses. And they’re healthier.

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“The problem with chocolate is all the other stuff that goes with it. So I would argue that the risk of a chocolate bar a day in terms of obesity and diabetes is far too much to take for the sake of a little bit of flavonoids that may or may not affect blood flow to the brain,” Zentner said.