The science behind the health benefits of chocolate (and what it really does to our bodies) is seriously fascinating — and very few of us really know it. In the centuries since chocolate became commonplace in European and North American societies, chocolate has fallen in public esteem, turning from a luxurious and health-affirming substance to the punchline of countless sexist and annoying jokes about women and their love of the stuff. And that stereotype isn't just offensive — the idea that women crave chocolate is bad science, since research has shown that our desires to consume chocolate are a culturally cultivated response to stress, rather than a biological need.
And there's no reason to focus on made-up scientific information about chocolate, when there's so much real, engrossing information about it out there. For instance, chocolate improves our mood, and not just with its delicious taste: it contains phenylethlamine, a chemical which stimulates endorphin levels (the same ones that Elle Woods famously noted "make you happy"), and caffeine, which stimulates the brain. But the science of chocolate goes much deeper than that, too. Read on, and discover the four ways in which your daily chocolate break totally counts as a health improvement activity.
1. Chocolate May Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Attack And Stroke
A study released in June added new evidence to the theory that dark chocolate may be good for your heart. It monitored 21,000 people over 11 years, and determined that the people who ate the most chocolate were 12 percent less likely to have heart disease — and a whole 23 percent less likely to suffer a stroke — than those who ate no chocolate at all.
This is pretty remarkable — but it's only the latest in a body of research that ties dark chocolate to health benefits for your heart. A previous study of 100,000 people showed the same sort of result: chocolate lovers had drastically lower stroke and heart disease levels than those who took a pass on the sweet.
What's Going On?
Back in 2014, Dutch scientists found out what might be happening to our hearts: it seems that dark chocolate increases the flexibility of arteries, and prevent white blood cells from sticking to blood vessels. And scientists also speculate that dark chocolate might increase the levels of nitric oxide in the body, which likely lowers blood pressure.
2. Chocolate Decreases Stress
This particular finding has been around since 2009, but it's worth highlighting again. Scientists studied a 40-strong group of highly stressed people, and measured the stress hormones in their bodies over a two-week period. They also had the subjects consume a small amount of dark chocolate each day. By the end of the fortnight, the study subjects may not have been Buddha-like in their calm, but the stress hormone levels in their body had dipped significantly.
What's Going On?
Chocolate raises the level of endorphins in the body, which lowers stress and increases pleasure. But a 2014 review of the scientific literature about chocolate pinpointed another stress-busting aspect of chocolate: it's thought to spike the brain's production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin uptake is an important factor in our mood, and boosting its levels in the body is a sure-fire way to both calm and cheer us.
3. Chocolate Is An Anti-Inflammatory
There are a bunch of dark chocolate health benefits that have been proven by science — the candy has been linked to better muscle recovery after exercise, better insulin sensitivity, lower rates of liver disease and many others. Some of these benefits have been traced back to certain compounds in the chocolate themselves. But in 2014, scientists discovered an entirely new reason that chocolate was a health booster: our bodies contain microbes that transform the food into a serious anti-inflammatory agent.
What's Going On?
The 2014 study found that if you follow chocolate's trajectory through the body after someone eats it, it's devoured with great enthusiasm by two kinds of microbes in the colon: Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria. And these microbes don't just eat it — they ferment and grow it into something else entirely. The end result? Molecules with anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce our risk of cancer and obesity.
4. Chocolate May Help Your Brain (Particularly In Old Age)
Chocolate consumption seems to be tied to improvements in a wide range of cognitive functions, from memory to reaction time — at least according to a 2007 study. And it's apparently particularly good for your brain performance as you age...within limits.
In 2014, a study of people over the age of 60 found that when the subjects increased the amount of chocolate that they consumed, they experienced improved brain performance — in some cases, allowing them to beat the cognitive function scores of people twenty or thirty years their junior. But it only created a short-term improvement — the chocolate consumption didn't lead to permanent cognitive enhancements.
What's Going On?
The study's authors thought that the improved cognitive functioning that they witnessed might have been caused by something called flavanols. They're a particular kind of flavonoid (a molecule found in plants) which has been shown to have antioxidant effects — and cocoa has a lot of them. The flavonols in the dark chocolate increase blood flow to a person's brain, but only for two to three hours. So it won't give you extra IQ points in the long-term — but it looks like a shot of dark chocolate before an exam might give you an advantage.
Consuming chocolate has health benefits — the science is indisputable. A warning, though: when you hear that "chocolate is good for you," bear in mind that what they're talking about is the pure cacao itself. When we consume too much chocolate, the negative impact of the sugars and fats present in most chocolates counterbalance almost all the health benefits of the cacao. So a small quantity of the very dark stuff, rather than a big milk chocolate bar, is your best option for maximizing its health benefits. Yeah, I'm not happy about that either. Sorry.
But if you follow that guideline, you can be smug at dinner parties about your healthy heart and amazing stress levels far into the future. Sounds tasty.