Dark Chocolate for a Healthier Heart

Do you have a bittersweet love affair with chocolate? One new study, published in the journal BMJ, found that dark chocolate reduces the risk of heart problems, which is sure to make that love taste sweeter.

A team of researchers from Melbourne Australia analyzed data of more than 2,000 Australians who were already at high risk of heart disease. They all had high blood pressure, but were not on blood pressure-lowering medication and had no history of heart disease or diabetes.

Using a mathematical model, researchers found that, if the patients were all to consume 100 grams of dark chocolate per day, about 70 non-fatal and 15 fatal cardiovascular events per 10,000 people for 10 years could be avoided.  In the model, researchers assumed about $40 was spent per person per year on a prevention strategy using dark chocolate.

In other words, the small amount of bittersweet reduced the risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and stroke, in people with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids, metabolites that have heart-protecting properties and are rich in antioxidants. Flavonoids, which can also be found in green and black teas, cherries, apples, red grapes and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables, have also been known to help with digestion, improve kidney, bowel function and sexual performance, and treat anemia and gout.

"Modest intake of dark chocolate intake can provide the daily amount and the benefits are substantial and cost effective," professor Chris Reid, lead author of the study and professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said via email. "For the first time, we have estimated the impact on clinical outcomes and a $40 per person, per year investment would yield a cost effective approach to cardiovascular disease prevention."

Reid and his colleagues even suggested that the heart health benefits and prevention could be touted in marketing and educational campaigns. Or governments could subsidize the cost of dark chocolate in high-risk heart disease populations.

The researchers concluded that the blood pressure-lowering effects of plain dark chocolate "could represent an effective and cost-effective strategy for people with metabolic syndrome (and no diabetes)."

It's important to note that the protective factors were only seen in dark chocolate that contained at least 60 percent (preferably 70 percent, experts say) cocoa.

"You're not going to see these same benefits in milk and white chocolate," said Carolyn Snyder, a registered dietician at Cleveland Clinic.

But she noted this is not a green light for people to eat copious amounts of any kind of chocolate. Snyder recommended consuming about one ounce of chocolate per day, two to three times a week, for the heart benefits.

" At last," Reid wrote. "A possible dietary or lifestyle modification recommendation that would be highly acceptable to many!"