Is chocolate good or bad for health?

Updated 1:58 PM EDT, Thu May 25, 2017
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19:  In this photograph illustration a woman eats a chunk of chocolate from a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate on January 19, 2010 in Bristol, England. The US food giant Kraft has today agreed a takeover of Dairy Milk maker Cadbury in a deal worth 11 billion GBP, however many Cadbury workers remained concerned over the longterm future of their jobs.  (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
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BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: In this photograph illustration a woman eats a chunk of chocolate from a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate on January 19, 2010 in Bristol, England. The US food giant Kraft has today agreed a takeover of Dairy Milk maker Cadbury in a deal worth 11 billion GBP, however many Cadbury workers remained concerned over the longterm future of their jobs. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Though some types of chocolate have antioxidants, not all of them are created equal

Its anti-inflammatory power is thought to come from a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids

Chocolate can have varying levels of flavonoid compounds, depending on how it was processed

(CNN) —  

Who doesn’t love chocolate? Even if it’s not your favorite sweet treat, you can probably agree that the confection conjures thoughts of love, pleasure and reward.

But in case you need one more reason (or 10) to celebrate chocolate, just look to science. Studies of chocolate lovers – and even some self-proclaimed “chocoholics” – suggest that it could lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, help control blood sugar and slash stress, and on and on.

Research has even backed up some of the more bizarre health benefits that have been ascribed to cocoa. The Mayans used chocolate powder to relieve the runs, and in the last decade, researchers have identified possible diarrhea-blocking chemicals in chocolate. But as for prescribing cocoa to combat syphilis sores, Victorian-era doctors probably missed the mark.

“(Chocolate) is a good antioxidant. It has a good effect on inflammation. We think most of the beneficial effects are because of this,” said Dr. Owais Khawaja, a cardiology fellow at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. These benefits might include reducing the risk of cancer and dementia, Khawaja said.

However, not all chocolate is created equal. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power of chocolate is thought to come from a class of plant nutrients found in cocoa beans called flavonoids. Dark chocolate has more of these than milk chocolate, and white chocolate – which does not actually contain chocolate – is not a good source of flavonoids.

Even a chocolate bar that is 70% cocoa, generally considered dark chocolate, can have varying levels of flavonoid compounds, depending on how it was processed. For example, chocolate that has gone through a chemical step known as dutching, also known as Dutch chocolate, has essentially lost all traces of these compounds.

Then there is the milk and sugar. “What we get commercially is not just the pure chocolate. … I don’t think the milk and sugar in milk chocolate would be that good for you,” Khawaja said.

That could be bad news for those who hope to harness the power of chocolate when they grab a Hershey’s or Snickers bar. Contrary to what the ads said when milk chocolate was introduced in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, it may not be a nutritious part of our diet.

But we need more research into the effects of consuming all kinds of chocolate, including milk. “There is not enough data as to what form of chocolate is good” and how much chocolate is good, Khawaja said. Studies tend to ask participants about whether they consume chocolate or dark chocolate, but not what kind. To make matters worse, people often forget or misrepresent how much they really eat.

For now, it is probably safe to say that dark chocolate is good – or at least, not bad. “But until we have more data, don’t eat too much. If you’re having a serving once or twice a day, fine. But don’t start having it six times a day,” Khawaja said.

Here’s a look at what doctors, rulers and businesspeople have thought of chocolate through the ages.

500 B.C.: ‘God food’ for everyone

The word “cocoa” comes from “kakawa,” which meant “God food” to the Olmec people who lived in what is now Central America between 1500 and 500 B.C. The ancient Mayan people in what is now Mexico apparently agreed. Researchers have detected chemicals from chocolate in Mayan ceramic vessels dating as far back as 600 B.C. Chocolate, which was often consumed as a thick, foamy beverage, probably only increased in popularity over the following centuries. By the time Europeans discovered the Mayans, chocolate was not just for the gods and the rich. Everyone was drinking it.

1500: Chocolate is the original energy drink

The chocolate beverage scored a huge endorsement when Aztec Emperor Montezuma II, who reigned from 1502 to 1520, called it “the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink (cocoa) permits man to walk for a whole day without food.”

1577: Got the runs? Take some chocolate

By the 16th century, chocolate was racking up a reputation both in the Americas and in Europe for treating many medical ails, including fever, cough, and stomach and liver problems. In 1577, Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez wrote about how Mexicans toasted cacao beans and ground them into a medicinal powder that “contained dysentery.” Five centuries later, in 2005, researchers found that flavonoid antioxidants in chocolate can block fluid secretion in intestinal cells, at least in the lab, suggesting that cocoa could provide natural diarrheal relief.

1719: Chocolate, it’s what’s for dinner

In his book “The Natural History of Chocolate,” Frenchman D. De Quelus recounted his 15-year-stay in the Americas and concluded that an ounce of chocolate had “as much nourishment as a pound of beef.” Perhaps as evidence to his point, he described a woman who could not chew because of a jaw injury and had to subsist on a diet of chocolate dissolved in hot water with sugar and cinnamon. She was “more lively and robust than before (her) accident,” De Quelus wrote.

1825: A spoonful of chocolate helps the medicine go down

A French pharmacist by the name of Jean-Antoine Brutus Menier opened a factory that coated less-palatable pills with chocolate. When his sons took over, they dropped the medicinal side and turned it into Menier Chocolate (which was eventually sold to Nestle).

1864: Slather chocolate on your syphilis sores

Chocolate was the most pleasant of the ingredients in a balm given to syphilis patients that also included corrosive materials. Chocolate was also used as an antidote for infections with parasitic worms. For that prescription, it was mixed with sugar, cinnamon, tree oil and an antifungal agent called calomel.

1875: Milk chocolate is born

After nearly a decade of experimentation, Swiss inventor Daniel Peter unveiled the “original” milk chocolate, a combination of cocoa, cocoa butter, condensed milk and sugar. Ads proclaimed the product to be a dietary staple more nutritious than coffee and a luxury that was “as distinct from ordinary eating chocolate as the Alps are from foot-hills.” Switzerland had the corner on milk chocolate until Cadbury hit the scene in England in 1904, promising to make “strong men stronger” and generally to be the superlative milk chocolate in terms of nutrition, sustenance and refreshment.

1900: Hershey brings milk chocolate goodness to American soil

Milton S. Hershey made a name for himself in the 1880s by developing a caramel candy so tasty, it killed all competition. By the turn of the century, the famous confectioner had moved on to chocolate. After a reconnaissance mission to Switzerland, the birthplace of milk chocolate, Hershey introduced the 5-cent bar from – where else? – Pennsylvania. Similar to its European predecessors, the bar was marketed as a daily dietary requirement that was “more sustaining than meat.”

1989: Antidepressant could cure chocoholics

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, texts piled up describing the everything-under-the-sun medicinal purposes of chocolate. But what if you needed medicine to stop yourself from indulging in chocolate? For the first time in medical literature, doctors reported successfully treating two patients with possible chocolate addiction using the then-new antidepressant bupropion, known as Wellbutrin. One of the patients, a middle-aged woman who also suffered from depression, went from eating 2 pounds of chocolate candy a day to having no interest in chocolate after taking bupropion. (She still had a normal appetite for other foods, though.)

1996: Is chocoholism really an addiction?

Research has concluded what most of us already know: Chocolate is the most craved of all foods. The power of chocolate is probably only boosted by the sweetness and creaminess of most chocolate treats. But could it really be addictive in the same way that drugs and alcohol are? Psychologists argue against this possibility. Although chocolate contains caffeine and substances similar to those found in marijuana, it probably does not contain high enough levels to have long-term e