Dear Alice,

Does chocolate have antioxidants?

Dear Reader,

Chocoholics of the world rejoice; there may be more reasons to be cuckoo for cocoa. In addition to satisfying your sweet tooth, chocolate also contains flavonoids — a strong antioxidant with a number of potential health benefits. In fact, historically, chocolate was often consumed for its supposed healing benefits. While some chocolate contains more antioxidants than some fruits and fruit juices, not all chocolate is equal — the darker and more bitter, the better. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s time to cash in fruits and vegetables for chocolate, rather it’s an opportunity to indulge in a treat that has extra benefits other than satisfying that sweet tooth! Read on for more about chocolate and its antioxidant benefits.

Cocoa powder contains the flavonoids, which are the predominant antioxidants found in chocolate. Flavonoids come in many different chemical shapes and structures, but they all have similar functions and benefits beyond their antioxidant properties. For instance, epicatechin can help increase blood flow to the cells that line the interior surface of blood and lymphatic vessels, reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce platelet activity. One study showed that dark chocolate had significantly higher antioxidant activity than most types of fruit juices (besides pomegranate) and many fresh fruits such as blueberries, acai, cranberries.

So how does antioxidant activity translate into potential health benefits? Antioxidants are primarily used to remove free oxygen radicals from the body that cause oxidative stress, which ultimately may lead to cell damage. Free radicals are naturally created during different bodily processes, including converting food into energy. People are also exposed to free radicals from a variety of environmental sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight. Current research suggests that oxidative stress has a role in many diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and cancer. However, it’s been demonstrated that antioxidants can counteract some of this oxidative stress.  

However, it's best not to go swapping out your fresh fruits for a bar of chocolate just yet, as it may get a little bitter. Chocolate is very energy-dense, meaning it’s high in calories and fats. Additionally, scientific studies have shown associations between chocolate and conditions such as acne, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and migraines. It’s also good to understand that not all chocolate is created equal. Plain, dark chocolate has the most antioxidant bang for its bite. Unfortunately, the chocolate found in products such as candy bars and hot cocoa mix has been processed to a point that where the flavonoid content is much less than in its natural state. Many chocolates also have added milk, which may interfere with the body's ability to absorb flavonoids, working against chocolate's health benefits.

While there’s a scrumptious amount of scientific literature on the health effects of cocoa and chocolate, there’s still no specific guidance on how much and what kind of chocolate to consume. Similarly, although it’s shown that cocoa has antioxidant capabilities, researchers are still wary of making the statement "the more flavonoids, the healthier." Research on how beneficial antioxidants are for the body is still inconclusive. In fact, there’s even research to indicate that having some oxygen free radicals could be beneficial to keeping the body balanced.

There may be some truth to the idea that food can be medicine and chocolate may be a noteworthy example. However, until there’s a better understanding of how much and what kind of chocolate is best consumed to maximize benefits, give yourself a break from all the research and maybe take a bite of a chocolate bar.

Alice!

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