Too often, scientific studies deliver findings that favorite foods are bad for our health. Today the news is all good. Should you make chocolate a healthy eating habit?

In a large British study that followed participants for 12 years, researchers explored the effect of chocolate consumption on more than 20,000 adults. The results, combined with other research, will be happy news for those who love chocolate!

Live Longer, Stay Healthy, Eat Chocolate

In the study, published in the journal Heart, study authors observed that people who ate the most chocolate during the term of the study, reduced their risk of stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Findings from this research include:

  • Participants who reported consuming the most chocolate per day, between 16 and 100 grams, appeared to gain the most benefit. That is about two regular sized chocolate bars.
  • And what was the health benefit? People who ate more chocolate brought in some impressive numbers: lower Body Mass Index (BMI), lower blood pressure, and lower blood levels of inflammatory proteins. Compared to those who ate none, chocoholics experienced a lower death rate during the study period, and an 11 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • The health benefits of chocolate flow from the cocoa bean. As a plant product, cocoa bean contains a plentiful supply of polyphenols. Polyphenols have an antioxidant effect, supporting vascular health, and potentially playing a role in the prevention of cancer.
  • Dark chocolate is highest in flavonoid antioxidants, and researchers have cautiously noted for years that dark chocolate could be a healthful part of your diet. In this study, one author notes, "Our results are somewhat surprising since the expectation was that benefits of chocolate consumption would be mainly associated with dark chocolate rather than the commercially available products, generally used in a British population which are high in sugar content and fat." This reflection opens the door for milk chocolate, with the caveat that milk chocolate has fewer antioxidants, and far more sugar and fat.

And There is More!

While the most recent, this research follows other studies in the last few years that make note of the capabilities of the cocoa bean. Consider these points:

  • Good for the gut, good for the heart: In 2014, a group of scientists at Louisiana State University delivered findings after investigating the effect of cocoa beans on gut microbiota. Microbiota, also known as the microbiome, are billions of bacteria that occupy your body, primarily in the gut, that aid in digestion, immunity, and other functions. In the study, scientists determined that certain bacteria, Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, have a sweet tooth. When they consume cocoa, these microbes secrete compounds with anti-inflammatory effect, potentially reducing cardiac and vascular damage caused by inflammation. Delivering a favorite probiotic food to these good bacteria also allows them to out-compete other less helpful bacteria, like E. coli, that produce inflammatory secretions.
  • Minimizing damage from stroke: A study from Johns Hopkins found a prominent flavonoid antioxidant in cocoa, epicatechin, was beneficial to minimizing the damage caused by stroke. At present, humans who suffer stroke must receive beneficial drug treatment within approximately two hours after the event. In this mouse study, researchers found epicatechin limited neuronal damage in a similar way, up to three and a half hours after the vascular incident. This research could pave the way for development of drug treatments to further protect brain and other tissue after a vascular, or cardiac, attack.

Other studies suggest the cocoa bean has properties that offer protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, could suppress cancer cells, and increase sensitivity to insulin.

Do Watch the Sugar

While the study showed benefits even with fatty and sugary chocolate, it's still a good idea to watch the sugar in your diet. So how can you get the health benefits of chocolate — without the sugar?

You can substitute antioxidant-rich raw cacao nibs (chopped cacao beans) for chocolate chips in pancakes, muffins, and smoothies. You can even grind them up and add to your coffee for a healthy "mocha" beverage.

You can also use raw cacao powder to make stevia-sweetened chocolate syrups, to add to smoothies, and to make other delicious treats. Here are some great recipes using raw cacao powder.

So is chocolate a wonder food? No, it is a plant with complex capabilities that caught the imagination, and the taste buds, of humans long ago. But with its proven health benefits, enjoy chocolate without guilt, but don't go overboard and eat too much of a delicious thing!

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