04/30/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

Is Chocolate Good for You? Or Bad?

By Sam Dean, Bon Appétit


We like science as much as the next guy, but historically, it hasn't been the most consistent when it comes to telling us what we should and shouldn't eat. Even though ingesting (and digesting) food is key to the biological definition of life itself, scientists just can't seem to make up their minds about what happens to us when we put things in our mouths.

We already went through wine's up-and-downs (poison! medicine! kinda both!), but what about chocolate?

Going way back, chocolate was thought of as medicine. The Aztecs used it as a religious energy drink, and old-school quacks wrote that chocolate helps digestion, coughs, jaundice, the "New Disease" (i.e., syphilis), and gout, among other things. Some said it was perfect for pepping up the constitutionally frail; others said it was perfect for calming down the overstimulated. Either way, everyone agreed that it was probably good for something, and it tasted great.

Then milk chocolate, science, and dieting came along. Chocolate used to come either solid and pitch black or (more commonly) as a drink, but in the 1870s, a Swiss confectioner figured out how to make solid bars of chocolate combined with milk: milk chocolate! With fewer expensive cocoa beans per bar, milk chocolate was a far cheaper product than its dark predecessor, and chocolate changed from a dish for the rich to a more democratic treat.

But with milk and ubiquity came worries about fat, and by the early 20th century, chocolate's supposed health effects had taken a backseat to its perception as a kind of candy. It also picked up a bad reputation for triggering acne outbreaks, contributing to migraines, and giving people heartburn. And besides its value as a treat, it didn't come up too much for most of the 1900s. If you look at a chart of "chocolate" mentioned in Google's book archive, you can see two spikes around both of the World Wars, when chocolate was rationed and advertised as gifts for overseas soldiers, but things take a massive dip between 1945 and the early 80s.

See more: Your New Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie

Which is when science started kicking in. In 1988 alone, chocolate was scientifically accused of causing itching, causing migraines, and causing indigestion. In 1989, science found that the fat from cocoa butter is good for you, but since most chocolate also has milkfat in it, it's bad! And a 1990 article called "New Insights on Why Some Children Are Fat" continued the chocophobic trend, with a Dr. Stunkard noting that "no one binges on hard candies, which are pure cream and chocolate are more often the villains."

Harsh words. And things weren't getting any better. In 1992, science found that chocolate makes you fatter than alcohol if you're an alcoholic (but failed to mention if the inverse holds true for chocoholics), and followed up in 1993 with the painful finding that a chemical found in chocolate might give you kidney stones.

But soft! What light through yonder science breaks? It is 1996, the year that things started looking up for chocolate again! First, science found that chocolate definitely does NOT cause acne outbreaks (though it can still get stuck in your braces). Then, in what might be the best chocolate-related study of all time, science also discovered that chocolate could be used not only as a shock absorber in cars but as a quick way to fill potholes.

Okay, this has nothing to do with health, but two researchers at Michigan State found that, according to the Times, "when a moderately high-voltage electric field was applied to molten Hershey bars, an almost instantaneous change occurs: the thin chocolate liquid becomes a stiff gel. The warm, tasty fluid is transformed into a semisolid within a few thousandths of a second after the electric field is applied, and it reverts to a liquid just as fast when the power is shut off." Paging any molecular gastronomists out there: please make a table out of electrified chocolate.

But all good things must come to an end. Later that year, science decided to remind everyone that chocolate still causes heartburn, and that it still has a lot of fat in it.

Oh, but wait, 1998 brought things back around: chocolate was proven to not actually cause migraines at all, and a study found that chocolate-eating men might live longer lives!

Uh oh, but then 1999 both found that chocoholism is cultural, not genetic, and that chocolate somehow proves the non-existence of free will, based on your brain chemistry. Is eating too much chocolate our fault or not, guys! Jeez. Oh, and it still might cause heartburn.

And then, in 2001, the New York Times came out and admitted that science has no idea what it's talking about when it comes to chocolate.

See more: Easy Ways to Upgrade Instant Ramen Noodles

Case in point, 2002 brought news that antioxidants in chocolate are healthy and that chocolate might trigger something called "cyclic vomiting." Ditto 2003, when the "acute embarrassment" of IBS was linked to chocolate, dark chocolate was praised and milk chocolate damned in the same breath, and one guy proposed a new law to deal with science flip-flop fatigue: "foods and beverages of wide appeal, once officially deemed harmful, must continue to be viewed that way for at least a generation, so the people who have avoided them can die believing they did the right thing."

The next couple of years were once again a golden time for pro-chocolateering, with scientists finding that a chemical in chocolate is better than codeine at stopping coughs, cocoa lowers blood pressure, and that the benefits of one compound found in cocoa "are so striking that it may rival penicillin and anaesthesia in terms of importance to public health." Wow!

Then: "The Problem With Chocolate." The Lancet, one of the world's premiere science journals, published an editorial raining on everyone's chocolate parade. Turns out that all the stuff in chocolate that might be good for you--the flavanols--are typically stripped out of commercial chocolate by the manufacturing process. Womp. Womp.

The next couple of years drift by with the science equivalent of static fuzz. Plus side: synthetic cocoa might help cure some cancers, chocolate milk might help fight atherosclerosis, and the Swedes are sticking to their heart-healthy guns. Bad side: chocolate ruins sleep, it's only good for you if you have it occasionally, not every day, and, most frightening of all, "Chocoholic Mice Fear No Pain."

In 2011, though, a bolt from the blue! A meta-study from Cambridge found that chocolate does probably definitely lower stroke rates, coronary heart disease, and high blood pressure. And the next year, settling the debate for once and for all, another study found that regular chocolate eaters are, improbably, thinner, and that "chocolate makes snails smarter." And if it makes snails smarter, why not us, too?!

So there you have it! Chocolate makes snails smarter. Wait, what was the question? Oh right, yeah. Here's your final answer: chocolate probably helps with vascular problems, but only in super-dark form, and only if you don't eat too much of it, and even then all that sugar and milk fat are bad for you, and if you want to be healthy you should probably just exercise more. Or, in short: Enjoy in moderation!

More from Bon Appétit:

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