Can Cooking With Chocolate Be Healthy?

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A new study will ask participants to take their daily dose of chocolate in a pill form. According to the Associated Press, 18,000 men and women are scheduled to enroll in the 4-year study, which is sponsored in part by Mars Inc. It will be the first large scale study to test the health benefits of flavanols, a group of polyphenols present in cocoa that may aid in vascular longevity. 

Chocolate has long been associated with a variety of health benefits. Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s leading suppliers of chocolate, states on its website that Europeans first regarded cocoa solely as a medicine, and the Aztecs believed it “strengthened the body.” Only recently, however, have nutritionists begun delving further into precisely why. Last month, scientists in the Netherlands published research which suggests that dark chocolate may improve arterial elasticity, increasing blood flow to the heart over time.

Surprisingly, the Dutch study did not, in fact, find that flavanols were the source of any additional health benefits. Test subjects were given either chocolate with high flavanol levels, or regular chocolate of the same cacao content. Both groups saw an even increase in blood flow, leading researchers to conclude that “increasing flavanol content has no added beneficial effect on vascular health.”

But that doesn’t mean that flavanols in chocolate can be written off yet. “You’re not going to get these protective flavanols in most of the candy on the market. Cocoa flavanols are often destroyed by the processing,” stated JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, leader of the most recent study. The “chocolate pills” offered to participants will contain much higher flavanol levels.

So, the bad news is that the flavanols in cocoa have little to no impact on the average baker’s molten fudge cake or chocolate stout cookies. Don’t give up hope yet, though, as that day may be coming soon. Mars has already created a process for extracting flavanols, and Hershey is working on a new method to detect them. A consumer market for “healthy” chocolate exists, even if it’s still a small segment of the overall industry. A decade from now, it’s possible that grandmas everywhere will be able to say, “a little bit of chocolate is good for you,” and have it actually be true.