Enduring Questions: Is Chocolate Good For You?

2006 was a great one for chocolate fans. In January, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (of Washington DC in the US) published the most convincing study yet linking flavonol-rich cocoa to improved blood-vessel health. A month later, the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that Dutch men who ate the most chocolate had a 47 per cent lower mortality rate over 15 years than a similar group that consumed little chocolate.

In June, the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology published a special supplement on cocoa flavonols, with 17 articles about chocolate’s health benefits, ranging from lower blood pressure to increased brain blood flow and better skin health (honest!).

In November, independent researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the US announced a study that showed a small amount of chocolate slowed platelet clumping. Platelets are important blood cells that promote the formation of blood clots – useful when it comes to limiting blood loss from a wound, but not so good when they form blood clots inside the circulatory system, as this can cause damage to blood vessels or, in the worst cases, trigger a heart attack or stroke. So, if chocolate does indeed slow the clumping of platelets, it could be very beneficial to health.

It’s enough to make you look for Willy Wonka’s nearest factory. There’s only one problem: much of this research has been sponsored by Mars, the company that makes M&Ms and Snickers.

Sweet Science
Mary Engler is an exception. A cardiovascular physiologist at the University of California in San Francisco, Engler, along with her twin sister and fellow PhD Marguerite, has spent the last 15 years researching the connection between diet and blood vessel health. In 2004, the Englers published the first independent study, in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, to show that dark chocolate allows the arteries to expand and carry more blood.

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