Chocolate for Heart Health: The Darker the Better


When it comes to heart health, not all chocolate is created equal.

This was the finding of a new study in which researchers at San Diego State University pitted dark chocolate against white chocolate to see which one offered the most benefit.

The researchers suspected that dark chocolate consumers would see the most health benefits from the dark chocolate, which among the various types of chocolate has the highest concentration of flavonoids. Flavonoids are compounds produced by plants that function as important pigment molecules. They've gained popularity as the substance responsible for the cardioprotective effects of red wine.

Specifically, researchers sought to discover what good things would happen if they studied people who ate chocolate every day, and whether different kinds of chocolates produced different health effects. The flav0noids are in highest concentration in the cocoa, which is absent in white chocolate.

The researchers fed either one of two types of dark chocolate or white chocolate to 31 (very lucky) experimental subjects over 15 days, after which they monitored their cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

They found that those who ate either form of dark chocolate had lower blood sugar levels and better cholesterol ratios, more "good" cholesterol or HDL, and less "bad" cholesterol, or LDL, compared to the white chocolate group.

Given these positive changes in factors associated with heart disease, researchers concluded that dark chocolate was the most likely to reduce risk of future cardiovascular disease.

The researcher presented the results at the conference Experimental Biology in San Diego.

In past animal studies and select human studies, flavonoids have been shown to be good anti-oxidants, scavenging oxygen radicals responsible for damage and aging.  Anti-microbial, anti-cancer, and cardio-protective effects have also been attributed to this special substance.

The new study adds to the evidence that chocolate, in small amounts, can be a good thing. A 2009 Swedish study found that small amounts of dark chocolate helped patients improve blood pressure control, and other studies have found protective benefits against diabetes in small doses.

But a small amount is the key detail. And for some of the study participants, it was a hard message to stomach.

"Compliance with our study subjects were great because everybody wanted to eat chocolate," the researchers said. "We actually had to tell them not to eat more than 50 grams a day."

Along with flavonoids, 50 grams of dark chocolate has about 252 calories - and half of those calories are from fat.  To put this in perspective, a single chocolate chip gives you enough calories to provide energy to walk about 150 feet.

Most Americans don't need more calories; more than 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Fortunately, flavonoids are found in many different fruits and berries, which are associated with many fewer calories and much less fat.

So while preliminary results are hopeful for chocolate lovers everywhere, don't indulge just yet.