BNF answers some common questions on dark chocolate
What is it in dark chocolate that might be beneficial?
Cocoa contains compounds called flavanols which are a type of polyphenol. Polyphenols are naturallyproduced by plants and so are found in plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, tea, coffee, wine, grainsand chocolate.
Research looking into the potential health benefits of cocoa flavanols covers a variety of differentareas including effects on heart health, immunity, dental health, skin, gut bacteria and cancer. Whilstthere have been some promising findings suggesting that cocoa flavanols can benefit markers ofheart health (such as blood pressure and blood cholesterol), evidence relating to other healthoutcomes is limited. Importantly, most of the studies have given people drinks, capsules or bars ofchocolate which have been specially made to contain high amounts of cocoa flavanols. The amount offlavanols present in cocoa varies due to the type and origin of the cocoa beans and losses occur dueto the processes involved in chocolate making, therefore chocolate that is available to buy containsconsiderably less flavanols than the preparations used in scientific studies. Chocolate manufacturersgenerally do not provide details of the flavanol content of their products on the label or on theirwebsite. A recent paper which analysed a variety of bars of chocolate that are commercially availablein the UK found that dark chocolate contained considerably more cocoa flavanols than milk chocolatebut, perhaps surprisingly, the percentage cocoa solids was not related to flavanol content whichmeans it’s impossible to know how much is in different chocolates.
In 2012 a health claim with the wording ‘Cocoa flavanols help maintain endothelium-dependentvasodilation, which contributes to normal blood flow’ was approved for use in the EU. ‘Maintainingendothelium-dependent vasodilation’ means increasing the elasticity of blood vessels, whichimproves circulation in the body and may be associated with improved heart health. In order to usethe claim a product must provide 200 mg of cocoa flavanols daily, which could be delivered by 2.5 gof high flavanol cocoa powder, 10 g of high flavanol dark chocolate or less than one gram of highflavanol cocoa extract in capsules or tablets. There are a very small number of specialist products onthe market which have been made using a process which preserves the cocoa flavanols and thereforecontain high amounts, however such products are expensive and are generally not available in highstreet shops.
It is important to remember that most chocolate is high in calories, fat and free sugars and so shouldbe consumed less often and in small amounts. Choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate may helpyou stick to smaller portion sizes due to its stronger flavour and is likely to increase the amount ofcocoa flavanols you will be consuming. While it’s difficult to be sure about the potential health effects,it’s possible that there may be some benefit to heart health from cocoa flavanols.