Wouldn't it be wonderful if eating chocolate was actually good for you? If it was, then I would be the healthiest person in the world. Chocolate is an ancient delicacy which has been produced from the seed of the Theobroma cacao tree for over 3000 years. The health benefits were revered in the 16th to 19th centuries when chocolate was introduced to Europe from Central America. It was thought to cure everything from chest ailments to "anger and bad moods". More recent studies have focused on the vascular benefits of chocolate, including a study published this month in the European Heart Journal.
Buijsse et al asked 19357 Germans how much chocolate they normally ate and then followed them up over eight years to see if they developed heart disease or stroke. They found that eating more chocolate was associated with a lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and fewer strokes. This concurs with the results of previous studies which showed a 20 and 45% reduction in the risk of stroke by eating a small amount of chocolate every week. Chocolate may also improve endothelial and vascular function and markers of inflammation.
Great news! Lets all eat chocolate! Well, not quite ...
The problem is that these are all observational and epidemiological studies. There may have been many other reasons for the individuals who ate more chocolate to be healthier which the investigators just didn't ask about. Previous studies have used a "control" of white chocolate but the difference in colour between white and dark chocolate is fairly obvious! In addition, not all chocolates are created equal. Dark chocolate, containing greater than 70% coco solids, contains the highest content of flavanols, the substance purported to improve vascular resistance and thus lead to health benefits. However, it is the heavily processed milk chocolates which are consumed in the greatest volume. And the detrimental effects of saturated fats and sugar may counteract any health benefits. Chocolate also contains may different chemicals including caffeine (a stimulant), theobromine (a mood enhancer) and many antioxidants. The proportions of these chemicals varies between different types of chocolate and no-one really knows which is the most beneficial combination. Flavanols are also found in high concentrations in many other "healthier" foods including grapes, apples and red wine.
Despite this research article I don't think we will be seeing prescriptions for chocolate any time soon. Sadly the "healthiest" chocolate is cacao in its raw form and this particularly bitter concoction really does taste more like medicine than chocolate. So next time I want to eat something healthy, I probably should still go for an apple rather than a chocolate bar.