Cocoa loco? The lowdown on chocolate and heart disease

Posted by on Jun 17, 2011 in heart disease | 0 comments


If you are a chocoholic, I bet you’ve noticed the headlines linking chocolate to a reduced risk of heart disease. In fact, data from the Kuna Indians (a tribe indigenous to Panama) have shown that cocoa and in particular dark chocolate are associated with declines in blood pressure. More recently, a large government study showed an even greater benefit in terms of a significant reduction in coronary heart disease prevalence. And in women, who have an increased risk for heart disease as they age (not only due to the increase in abdominal fat or changes in their blood fat levels but also to loss of ovarian function), chocolate has ben shown to slightly lower the risk of dying from heart disease.

Sounds promising and quite frankly, awesome, right?

Well…before you run out to the grocery or chocolate shop, you may want to read further…

Researchers have long been interested in flavonoids and in particular (at least in so far as menopause goes) in isoflavones. (See soy posts for more on isoflavones). The specific compound or molecule of interest in cocoa (the non-fat component cocoa bean extract or liquor) are flavanols, which are also found in lower concentration in apricots, peaches, apples, green and black tea, red wine and cider). Note that the quantity of flavanols in chocolate depends on manufacturing, including fermentation and roasting, and how much treatment is given to reducing bitterness and improving consistency. What this means is that dark chocolate has the highest concentration of flavanols and milk, the lowest.

What have researchers learned so far?

  • Flavanols found in cocoa and cocoa powder may be powerful antioxidants and as such, help to mitigate certain factors that contribute to atherosclerosis, such as the formation of plaques in the arteries that lead to stroke and other coronary events. Thus, as antioxidants, they may actually neutralize toxic oxygen species circulating in the bloodstream.
  • Experimental data suggest that ingestion of flavanols may help to regulate proteins and other compounds that encourage an inflammatory response to leads to heart disease.
  • Flavanols may also help to stabilize the lining and muscular tone of the arteries and prevent them from narrowing.
  • Additionally, flavanols may moderately protect against high blood pressures, although studies have been mixed.
  • Finally, flavanols may help to maintain blood sugar levels and improve the ratio of good to bad fats in the blood.

Wow, this sounds fantastic! And all it takes is a daily diet of dark chocolate?

Here’s the great news. Researchers are devoting increasing amounts of time toward learning how certain foods affect (and benefit) health. However, in so far as chocolate goes? In a thorough review published online in Maturitas, they write that of the studies that have been conducted, it’s truly difficult to determine whether or not there is a causal relationship, i.e. eating A causes B, or eating chocolate prevents heart disease. In the case of chocolate in particular, factors like manufacturing can influence study findings. Moreover, researchers still aren’t sure if they should be focusing on flavanols or some other component of cocoa. It is also possible that only people who already have some sort of problem or condition will benefit ¬†from eating more chocolate.

The bottom line? Dark chocolate in moderation, won’t hurt you and may actually help you. However, you may want to temper expectations. At least a wee bit. Dare to dream though…perhaps cocoa will ultimately defy explanation!

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