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Ask A Scientist

Is dark chocolate good for you?

Asked by: Brad Bennett
School: Union Endicott High School
Grade: 10
Teacher: Mrs. Teribury
Hobbies/Interests: Lacrosse, jetskiing and wakeboarding  

Answer from Lina Begdache-Marhaba

Adjunct Lecturer

Research area includes nutrition and obesity, cell and molecular biology, neuroscience
Ph.D. school: Binghamton University
Family: Husband Ali Marhaba, MD and children Jade and Rani
Hobbies/Interests: Tae Kwon Do, basketball, and jogging 

The benefits of chocolate are slowly immerging in the science field. Researchers reported that consumption of cocoa is linked to lower incidences of heart disease and cancer. Recently, some findings suggest that cocoa may lower the risk of stroke and dementia. In fact, the cocoa bean contains more than 400 chemicals beneficial to health. The prominent ones are the flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants and powerful anti-inflammatory.  Flavonoids protect against heart disease by neutralizing free radicals and by increasing the good cholesterol “HDL” levels. Free radicals are destructive molecules produced constantly in the body. If left unchecked, they damage our organs causing numerous diseases including heart disease and some cancers. In addition, flavonoids improve the function of the endothelium (the inner layer of the arteries) by increasing nitric oxide formation, which is a blood vessel relaxer produced naturally to control blood pressure and to enhance blood flow. Endothelial dysfunction (i.e., lower nitric oxide production) is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, stroke and dementia. By increasing nitric oxide production in the brain and thus healthy blood flow, cocoa is believed to reduce the risk of stroke and dementia by keeping the brain well innervated. 

Nevertheless, a word of caution for chocolate lovers; chocolate is high in calories and fat. Eating too much chocolate negates its health benefits, so moderation is the key. Although there is no specific recommendation, most research reported health benefits from a daily consumption of 40-100 mg of dark chocolate. Conversely, others claimed the same effects from a once-a-week consumption. However, not all chocolate types generate the same health benefits. Milk chocolate and Dutch cocoa chocolate contain less antioxidants; whereas white chocolate contains no antioxidants at all.

Chocolate has been described by some researchers as a psychopharmacologic, a drug that affects the mind. In fact, eating chocolate increases brain levels of endorphins, serotonin and anandamide. While endorphins reduce stress and increase pleasure and sense of achievement, serotonin acts as an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety.  As for anandamide, it improves memory and operates as an internal painkiller. Lastly, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a brain modulator that boosts emotions and enhances feelings, which explains why chocolate is the preferred gift on Valentine’s Day.

So, yes (dark) chocolate is good for you but only in moderation!

Last Updated: 9/18/13