Is chocolate actually good for you? New study explains

Researchers found that cocoa in moderation might be the sweet spot to reduce risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. It is unclear how this translates to a typical bar of chocolate.

 A 200 gram bar of dark cooking chocolate, broken up. (photo credit: SKopp/Wikimedia Commons)
A 200 gram bar of dark cooking chocolate, broken up.
(photo credit: SKopp/Wikimedia Commons)

Chocolate has long been found to be one of the best foods to boost your mood. Research also suggests that a couple of servings per week of cocoa might be the sweet spot to reduce the risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. 

In a new study conducted by the University of Surrey, the first of its kind, published last month in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers found that cocoa—specifically, the flavanols it delivers to the body—can help decrease blood pressure and reduce arterial stiffness as much as some blood pressure medications.

It remains unclear whether this benefit would translate to a typical bar of chocolate. 

Flavanols are a form of antioxidant found in kale, red wine, berries, tomatoes and more, as well as chocolate.

7 Best Blood Pressure Monitors Review For 2016 (credit: PR)7 Best Blood Pressure Monitors Review For 2016 (credit: PR)

Researcher Professor Christian Heiss explained the need for the study: “Before we even consider introducing cocoa into clinical practices, we need to test if the results previously reported in laboratory settings safely translate into real-world settings, with people going about their everyday lives," Heiss said. 

“What we have found indicates that cocoa flavanols only decrease blood pressure if it is elevated."

Prof. Christian Heiss

Investigators monitored eleven healthy participants for several days as they consumed, on alternating days, either six cocoa flavanol capsules or six placebo capsules containing brown sugar. Participants were provided with an upper arm blood pressure monitor and a finger clip gauging the pulse and levels of arterial stiffness.

Measurements of blood pressure and pulse were taken prior to consumption of the capsules and every half-hour after eating for the first three hours, and then hourly for the remaining nine hours. Researchers found that blood pressure and arterial stiffness were only lowered in participants if it was high, and there was no effect when the blood pressure was low in the morning.

The team noted that effects were also, for the first time, identified eight hours after cocoa was consumed. Researchers believe that this second peak may be because of how bacteria in the gut metabolize cocoa flavanols.

Bottom line

Although longer studies are necessary to confirm the findings, the new research suggests that cocoa flavanols might be a potential treatment option for people who have slightly elevated blood pressure.

“High blood pressure and arterial stiffness increase a person’s risk of heart disease and strokes, so it is crucial that we investigate innovative ways to treat such conditions," Heiss said. 

“The positive impact cocoa flavanols have on our cardiovascular system, in particular, blood vessel function and blood pressure, is undeniable," he continued. "Doctors often fear that some blood pressure tablets can decrease the blood pressure too much on some days.

"What we have found indicates that cocoa flavanols only decrease blood pressure if it is elevated. Working with participants’ personal health technologies showed us how variable blood pressure and arterial stiffness can be from day to day and shows the role of personal health monitors in developing and implementing effective personalized care.”