In recent years a significant body of evidence has built up indicating that the flavanols found in cacao, the principal ingredient of dark chocolate, help improve circulation and cardiovascular health. This Choc Tuesday we examine some recent research in the field and look at what the findings mean for our own chocolate consumption habits. If you want to take a deeper look into the linked research articles, refer to our guide to interpreting food research for some handy pointers.
Cacao flavanol study, September 2015
A study released last month in the British Journal of Nutrition found that healthy adults aged between 35–60 years experienced a number of cardiac benefits from the regular consumption of cacao flavanols. A sample group of 50 healthy middle-aged men and women were given 450mg doses of cacao flavanols in the form of a powdered drink, consumed twice daily over one month. A control group of 50 participants followed the same regimen consuming an almost identical powdered drink, except with all of the cacao flavanols removed.
After one month, participants who had consumed the flavanol-rich drink had significantly improved systolic blood pressure (average reduction of 4.4 mmHg or 3.97%) and diastolic blood pressure (reduction of 3.9 mmHg or 5%) compared to the control group which remained unchanged. The flavanol group’s LDL cholesterol – known as the ‘bad cholesterol’ – was reduced by 0.18 mmol/L (5.84%) while their ‘good’ HDL cholesterol increased by 0.08 mmol/L (5.23%).
From our perspective, the major strength of this study is that it showed health the health benefits of cacao consumption for healthy people who have no existing medical condition, whereas previous studies have worked with those who were already ill. It’s also important that the scientific method used here managed to isolate cacao flavanols as the major beneficial component of chocolate. This suggests that we should consume chocolate that’s high in flavanols and low in unhealthy ingredients, such as refined sugars and artificial additives.
The best ways to preserve those flavanols is to use high quality cacao and keep its temperature as low as possible, both during the fermentation and roasting stages. The Chocolution takes great pains to tick both of those boxes, especially with our raw chocolate which is never roasted.
It’s important to note that this study received direct funding from MARS Inc., a large chocolate producer, and the Flaviola consortium, which also has links to the chocolate industry. We don’t expect that to have influenced the scientific accuracy of the research. However, it’s entirely possible that the funders will make claims about their own products based on the research, some of which could be misleading and not based on the science behind the results. It’s important to remember that this study tested the effectiveness of cacao flavanols not chocolate, and that the mass-produced chocolate made by the companies who funded this research is likely to be low in flavanols and high in unhealthy additives.
Habitual chocolate consumption meta-analysis, June 2015
Research published by the British journal Heart in June this year found that people who eat more chocolate have a significantly lower overall risk of future cardiovascular events, including stroke and death from cardiovascular disease. The study examined the self-reported chocolate consumption habits of a large cohort of 20,951 people from Norfolk and monitored their subsequent cardiac health, finding an 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a 25% reduction in associated cardiac death and a 23% lower risk of stroke amongst the highest chocolate consumers compared to those who ate no chocolate.
Researchers then analysed the results of nine existing studies spanning a cohort of nearly 158,000 participants. They found that most of these studies showed chocolate’s beneficial impact on cardiac health, with a 25% reduction in the likelihood of cardiac incidents and 45% reduction of cardiac-related death on average amongst high chocolate consumers, compared to those who ate no chocolate.
The consumption of up to 100g of chocolate per day appeared to correlate with these health benefits, although the broad nature of the study meant it was difficult to establish an ‘ideal’ daily chocolate consumption. Perhaps surprisingly, those who ate milk chocolate appeared to enjoy cardiac benefits too, although based on numerous other studies we believe that flavanol-rich dark chocolate remains by far the healthiest and purest choice for chocolate lovers.
The fact that this was an observational study means no solid cause and effect link can be definitively established. However, the study’s large cohort size greatly reduces its potential for error and strongly supports a link between chocolate consumption and heart health. Another strength, from our perspective, is that this research focuses on people’s real-life chocolate consumption habits, which might make the results more applicable in a real-world setting than other studies (like the one mentioned above).
Importantly, this study declared no funding from the chocolate industry, which gives it an added layer of credibility among those who are uncomfortable with industry influence in scientific research.
What do these findings mean for our own relationship with chocolate?
There have been any number of studies in the past decade that have provided similar findings to what you’ve just read above. The link between cacao flavanols and improved cardiac health is now established, well-evidenced and recognised by nutritionists and scientists across the globe.
Our recommendation to you is to remove the guilt you might have previously associated with chocolate, and instead start to see the potential inherent in this incredible food. Try artisan chocolates that emphasise the beneficial components of cacao and eschew the refined sugars, preservatives and unnecessary additives that have become the norm in so many mass-produced chocolates. Enjoy the diverse flavours of the cacao and feel the difference as you upgrade your own relationship with chocolate.
We’ve discovered a lot about chocolate in recent years, but there’s still so much to learn Make sure you join us on the journey.
Viva la Chocolution!