The Best Way to Eat Chocolate

We’ve heard both good news and bad news about chocolate, so what’s the truth? The experts at the newsletter Harvard Women’s Health Watch looked into whether the health claims are “as sweet as they sound.”

The Harvard experts say that chocolate’s been billed as “heart-healthy” and able to “sharpen seniors’ brains.” Should we believe the hype? Yes – and no.

"The media snatch up a cocoa story and say, ‘Eating chocolate is good for you, go out and eat chocolate bars.' That's not it," Dr. Eric Ding, a research scientist in the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says in the newsletter.

The reality: Ingredients in cocoa by itself can be healthy, but the chocolate bars that have cocoa aren’t necessarily good for you.

Cocoa, derived from cacao seeds, is high in plant compounds called cocoa flavonoids. The Harvard experts say that cocoa has been proven to have beneficial effects on heart-disease risk and blood flow to the brain. On the other hand, the chocolate bars that most of us love have sugar, milk and other ingredients added to cocoa powder. And that isn’t so good for us.

According to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, when Ding and his colleagues analyzed the results of 24 studies on the effects of cocoa flavonoids on heart risks, they found that flavonoids reduced blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol, increased healthy cholesterol, improved blood flow, and lowered insulin resistance.

The problem: Many of the studies on cocoa's benefits used an average flavonoid dose of 400 milligrams a day. "That's about the equivalent of eight bars of dark chocolate or 30 bars of milk chocolate," Ding says. "When you eat these actual chocolate bars, all the calories and sugar come with them."

To get the health advantages of cocoa flavonoids without the fat and calories, the Harvard experts suggest, consider buying a more concentrated cocoa product. Some cocoa supplements on the market contain up to 250 milligrams of cocoa flavonoids per serving.

Another cautionary note: researchers have only confirmed cocoa's short-term benefits on heart risks—not the outcomes of the lowered risk. In other words, cocoa flavonoids may counteract the high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other factors that contribute to a heart attack, but whether they actually prevent one from happening isn’t yet certain. "The jury's still out," Ding says.