Chocolate—good or bad?

Dear Alice,

Is chocolate bad for you?

Dear Reader, 

Dinner is in a few hours. Lunch seems like it was ages ago and you have a busy afternoon ahead. The deliciousness of chocolate and the sweet, sugary caffeine fix it offers seem to be the only thing able to get you through the day. You reach for a bar of chocolate… is that so bad? The answer isn’t so straightforward. Based on a variety of factors including what other snacks you're reaching for, which type of chocolate you choose, and how much of it you eat, there could be benefits and drawbacks. Cacao, the bean from which both chocolate and cocoa powder are made, isn’t inherently unhealthy. In fact, cacao offers many potential health benefits like helping to lower blood pressure, increasing insulin sensitivity, improving coronary vasodilatation (widening of blood vessels), having other cardiovascular benefits, and acting as an anti-oxidizing agent. However, keep in mind, not all chocolates are created equal. 

The health-contributing characteristics of chocolate are called flavonoids. These health-promoting compounds found in plant-based foods such as fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes belong to a larger class of compounds called polyphenols. In plants, flavonoids work to repair damage and protect the plant from environmental toxins. When consuming plant-based foods rich in flavonoids, they can act the same way in the body. Flavonoids offer antioxidant protection by triggering your body to make more nitric oxide, a gas that dilates blood vessels which ultimately lowers blood pressure. Flavonoids might also aid in preventing plaque formation on the walls of your arteries. Dark chocolate is the most flavonoid-rich variety of chocolate, and therefore the most likely to offer health benefits. That said, it's unclear what amount of flavonoids you need to eat to receive noticeable benefits to your health. It's recommended to eat at most one ounce of dark chocolate per day, but people who are pregnant or breastfeeding should limit this to one or two times per week. 

Chocolate still has its fair share of concerns that you may also want to be mindful of: 

  • Chocolate tends to lose flavonoids as it's being processed. This is common in many commercial chocolates and is even sometimes intentional because flavonoids can taste bitter. Many chocolate products are also made with milk, which can interfere with the antioxidant functioning of flavanols—a specific type of flavonoid found in significant amount in things like tea, red wine, and chocolate—negating most of the potential health benefits. 
  • Many chocolate products are paired with caramel, nuts, marshmallow, and other add-ins that decrease the amount of flavanols in every bite. 
  • Even the most flavonoid-rich dark chocolate has fat, sugar, and calories (one ounce of any kind of chocolate has about 150 to 170 calories and 9 to 10 grams of fat). This is important because saturated fats can be harmful to blood lipid health. 
  • Sometimes, dark chocolate and cocoa powder can be contaminated by lead, cadmium, or other heavy metals during production, transportation, or during manufacturing. Heavy metals have negative impacts on fetal and child development. In the United States the daily minimal risk level for daily intake of cadmium is about 6 micrograms for a 130-pound person, which could be exceeded by 1 ounce of dark chocolate. That said, ingesting small amounts of these metals is not considered particularly harmful. 

Companies can label their chocolate as "high in flavonoids" starting when as little as four percent of the cocoa's natural flavonoids are conserved. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does approve certain health claims for products with high-flavanol cocoa powder, they still believe studies on chocolate and health are inconclusive. 

To answer your question, Reader, chocolate isn’t inherently good or bad for you. Each person might choose to answer this question for themselves, taking into consideration which kind of chocolate is within reach and their own health needs. Plus, how can you even begin to measure the joy that comes from snacking on a piece of chocolate? Remember, happiness is important to health, too! 

Happy snacking, 

Last updated Jul 28, 2023
Originally published Oct 11, 1996

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