Chocolate has a long and illustrious reputation. Made from cocoa, which is derived from the beans of the cacao tree, it was used by some of the earliest cultures as food, medicine, ritual offering and, perhaps, even currency. It remains valuable in modern times; the global chocolate market grew by nearly 20 percent between 2016 and 2021, with an approximate revenue of $980 billion in 2021, according to market research.
Taste surely plays a role in chocolate’s popularity, but you may have also heard that this delectable treat may affect your health. But how does this perception stack up against the science?
Chocolate is clearly good for you, but that depends on how much cocoa is actually in a given product, and what else is in it. Cocoa beans are packed with fiber, i.e., the natural beneficial components found in plants. Cocoa is thought to contain about 380 different chemicals, among them a large class of compounds called flavanols that have attracted significant research interest for their potential health benefits. But it’s less clear how many flavanols and other phytonutrients you need to improve health, or whether your chocolate bar of choice contains enough of them to do so. And experts have differing opinions on this point.
Milk chocolate typically contains about 20 percent cocoa, though the cocoa content can vary. (The Food and Drug Administration requires milk chocolate to contain at least 10 percent cocoa, but some milk chocolate bars contain as much as 50 percent or more.) Dark chocolate usually contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, but it can also vary greatly, so check labels carefully. For possible health benefits, choose dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa. Many small short-term human trials have revealed that dark chocolate or standardized cocoa supplements or drinks can modestly lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol and the health of blood vessels in adults. And some longer term observational studies have found that those who eat more cocoa might have a lower risk of certain cardiovascular diseases.
In a systematic review published recently in the AMA journal, researchers examined how certain foods and nutrients were associated with heart health conditions. They found “probable or convincing evidence” that eating chocolate was linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, estimating that an average daily intake of just 10 grams, or about one-third of an ounce of chocolate, was associated with a 6 percent reduction in the overall risk of cardiovascular disease. But these types of estimates are based on observational studies, which have important limitations, meaning that they can only identify correlations between eating chocolate and health; they can’t prove that chocolate causes benefits — people who eat more chocolate may be different in other ways that affect their health.
Although dark chocolate is usually considered a ‘healthy’ indulgence, Consumer Reports (CR) has recently discovered a “dark side” of chocolate: worrisome levels of lead or cadmium that have been linked to a host of health problems in both children and adults.
Of the 28 chocolate bars they tested, five had high levels of both of these heavy metals: Trader Joe’s, Lily (owned by Hershey’s), Green and Black’s (owned by Mondelez), and two bars by Theo. This is risky stuff – consistent, long-term exposure to even small amounts of heavy metals can harm your health.
But there’s modest good news for chocolate lovers. Some bars tested had relatively low levels of these metals. Which means candy makers can make their chocolate safer! Currently there are no federal standards for heavy metals in most foods. But Consumer Reports has been advocating for heavy metal limits in all the foods we eat, because consistent exposure in those who are pregnant and young children can affect brain development and lead to lower IQ levels. For adults, the risks include certain nervous system disorders, hypertension, immune system suppression, kidney damage, and reproductive issues. In its analysis, CR used California’s strict standards for heavy metals as a benchmark, and several chocolate bars they tested came in under those limits. That means companies with high levels in their chocolate should be able to reduce the risk – but they need to hear from consumers like us who expect safer products! Everyone should be able to enjoy dark chocolate without the worry. If we all speak out together, we can pressure companies to take the needed steps to reduce the health risk!
So, with that, I’ll abandon my soapbox!


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