Chocolate lovers (which, let's be honest, is almost everyone, including me!) have been given many reasons to rejoice. Multiple studies have emerged suggesting not only that chocolate isn't bad for you, but may even be beneficial for our health, as we can see from studies where chocolate was shown to reduce blood pressure, improve cardiovascular function, and even quell stress responses. We might get the impression that we can snack on a bar of chocolate without guilt!
However, these studies may not give you the full context of living a chocolate-filled life. While it's tempting to just look at the chocolate-positive studies to justify your daily chocolate habit, there are other studies that would suggest just the opposite. In fact, it may be that the negatives outweigh the positives - they just aren't discussed as often in the media, as they don't fit with popular, chocolate-loving opinion.
Below are findings from several of these studies, so we can get both sides of the divisive chocolate debate:
- Chocolate and cocoa contain histamines: Histamines occur naturally in the body. At normal levels, they are essential for a healthy body, as they remove allergen triggers through sneezing, tearing up, or itching. However, some foods contain high levels of histamine, and may contribute to food allergies and exacerbated symptoms, especially in those with a histamine intolerance. Chocolate, unfortunately, generally contains histamines. However, organic cocoa contains lower histamines than non-organic, processed cocoa counterparts. Scientists found that a low-histamine diet not only reduced the body's physical reactions to allergens, but also eliminated other reported symptoms, like anxiety, increased heart rate, and clammy hands and feet. If you find your allergies flaring up regularly or often feel anxious, reducing your chocolate (histamine) intake could alleviate these issues.
- Chocolate contains sugar: Almost every chocolate bar or candy on the shelves at our local grocery store contains sugar. While the amounts vary per brand, milk chocolate contains, on average, 51 grams of sugar per 100 grams. This is equivalent to about 12 teaspoons worth of sugar (with approximately 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon) in about 1 cup (100 grams) of chocolate. Dark chocolate with 70-85% cacao solids, which is often extolled as the healthy alternative to milk chocolate, doesn't do all that much better. You will still be getting an appreciable amount of sugar at 24 grams per 100 grams. In our society, where sugar is added to almost everything we eat, chocolate is adding an additional and unnecessary toxic burden.
- Chocolate may cause acne: Several studies have discovered that chocolate consumption can lead to acne in certain people. One study found that in acne-prone males, eating cocoa lead to increased acne lesions 4-7 days after consumption. A second study examined the inflammatory markers responsible for acne production, which increased significantly after subjects ate 50 grams (approximately ½ cup) of chocolate for four consecutive days. Another study found that acne significantly increased over 4 weeks when subjects ate 25 grams (approximately ¼ cup) of dark chocolate daily. While chocolate may make us feel good, its negative effects tend to make themselves obvious on our skin.
- Chocolate contains dairy: Dairy has its own list of negative effects. One scientific review found that dairy may not strengthen bones after all - countries with the lowest consumption of dairy also have the lowest risk of osteoporosis. Researchers found in a study cohort of over 77,000 women over 12 years that higher consumption of milk doesn't decrease the risk of hip or forearm fractures. Add that to the estimate that over 75% of the world's population is lactose intolerant to some degree, and you have a solid case for avoiding dairy. Milk chocolate, as you can tell by its name, contains a fair amount of dairy. Even dark chocolate, which often claims to be dairy-free, likely contains dairy - the FDA found that 61% of dark chocolate bars tested contained dairy. In fact, 15% of bars labelled as "dairy-free" still included dairy.
- Chocolate likely doesn't contain all the important antioxidants you think it does: One of the most discussed benefits of chocolate is its heart-boosting properties. These effects mainly come from an antioxidant called flavanol, which is also found in tea, red wine, and some fruits and vegetables. However, an examination into 12 common chocolate brands revealed that the chocolate has likely been stripped of flavanols during the manufacturing process because they give chocolate an undesirable bitter taste. This is more common in milk chocolate than dark, although much dark chocolate was also affected. Unfortunately, this means that your chocolate bar may not always have the compounds with the benefits some research has promised.
- Chocolate may contain unsafe levels of heavy metals: Recently, the health watchdog group As You Sow conducted an analysis of 70 different chocolate products, including those made by Ghirardelli, Hersey's, Mars, See's Chocolate, Whole Foods, and Cadbury. They found that 45 of the 70 products contained lead and/or cadmium over the safety threshold set in the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. While some chocolate tested is safe to eat (see full list), your chocolate habit may be causing harmful heavy metals to build up in your system, causing a range of health issues.
- Chocolate is not easy to quit: Many of us joke about being "chocoholics", or having a chocolate addiction. Research has shown that there is likely some truth behind those jests - in fact, one study discovered that chocolate is the most craved food in Western societies. Another study found that chocolate contains several biologically active constituents (including xanthine, a simulant that caffeine is derived from), which create reactions similar to those of addictive substances. We may also be relying on chocolate as self-medication for dietary deficiencies, or to balance low levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. By relying on chocolate in this way, we're simply covering up the symptoms and developing a dependence on chocolate without treating the root cause of the health deficiencies.
Overall, chocolate may not be the absolute health superstar it's been portrayed as in the media. There are several aspects to consider when indulging in this tasty delight. While many of us might find it impossible to give up chocolate completely, it should be treated it as a special, occasional luxury, not as a daily health "supplement".