Chocolate & Cocoa 'Healthy' Benefits, or Negative Health Effects?
Stories on the Health Benefits of consuming Cocoa Products have increasingly made the news, following the discovery that they are a rich source of catechins, which are polyphenols of the flavanol group, and which are believed to protect against heart disease, cancer, and various other medical conditions.
Chocolate manufacturers, retailers, and the media have been taking advantage of these findings by not only trying to make chocolate lovers feel less guilty about their addiction, but also by trying to target more health-conscious consumers with regular doses of "research studies" praising the supposed health benefits of consuming (dark) chocolate, among them that:
- eating chocolate does not trigger migraine headaches,
- eating chocolate reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer.
- eating chocolate does not give someone acne or other skin eruptions,
- eating chocolate boosts one's appetite, but does not cause weight gain,
- eating moderate amounts of chocolate makes one live almost a year longer,
- eating chocolate releases endorphins in the brain, which act as pain-relievers,
- the sugar in chocolate may have a calming and pain relieving effect.
How reliable are all these "Studies?"
When taking a closer look, one discovers that once the studies funded by chocolate interest groups were discarded, the ones left offered conflicting results. As expected, some isolated compounds in cocoa did however show certain health benefits. Because it is a common practice in nutritional research to do studies on food fractions, outcomes may sometimes appear negative because they are done without any co-factors or "Whole-Food" nutrients. However in the case of cocoa, some of the research was positive because all the detrimental ingredients in chocolate - and their negative health effects - were not part of the study.
If people were to consume pure cocoa (or cacao, the unheated form), they might indeed be able to enjoy a few health benefits, including a positive effect on blood pressure  and glucose metabolism, however the majority of people eat processed chocolate with all the other less desirable ingredients (i.e. added sugar, corn syrup, milk fats / dairy cream, hydrogenated oils, etc.), and where the actual cocoa content may be less than 20%, so unless premium dark chocolate is consumed, and one does not suffer from copper overload (see further below), all bets regarding chocolate being healthy are off.
With claims made of sugar having a "pain-relieving" effect (babies fed a sucrose solution felt less pain from needles), it is doubtful that we will see chocolate bars replacing conventional analgesics any time soon, nor are these same "researchers" making these sugar-promoting claims likely going to reach for a chocolate bar next time they suffer from a throbbing toothache, a pounding headache, or a kidney stone attack.
While cocoa and sugar do not "cause" acne, the sugar present in chocolate will most certainly make acne, or any other acne-like skin eruptions worse, as anyone suffering from these skin conditions can attest to.
Placebo-controlled trials showed that some of the chemicals in chocolate (phenylethylamine, theobromine, or caffeine), can indeed trigger migraines by altering cerebral blood flow and releasing norepinephrine in some of those prone to suffer from migraine headaches. Of all of the foods isolated that triggered the most attacks, chocolate was an offender about 30% of the time. Claiming that "eating moderate amounts of chocolate increases one's life span" is a most interesting example of how some "researchers" will twist and manipulate statistics to prove anything!
"Chocolate-Is-Good-For-You" campaigns through the media or the prominent placement of leaflets at confectionery counters keep feeding the consumer "made-to-order" research results whose outcome is pre-determined to satisfy an agenda (i.e. selling chocolate), with little relevance to science or facts. Considering that tobacco has also shown some health benefits, particularly with ulcerative colitis and Parkinson's disease, would this be a reason to entice people to start smoking?
From a nutritional perspective - the average milk chocolate product is no less a junk food than ice cream or donuts, and it is equally unhealthy and fattening when large amounts are consumed on a regular basis. While no one is trying to discourage people from enjoying an occasional chocolate treat - selling chocolate on the premises of providing health benefits, and urging consumers to increase their chocolate consumption for "Health Reasons" leaves nutritional research less than credible, particularly when diabetes and obesity have become an out-of-control global problem.
The good news is, premium grade dark chocolate contains only cocoa butter, a fat that naturally occurs in cocoa beans, which is made up of stearic acid (34%), oleic acid (34%), palmitic acid (25%), and the rest of other fatty acids, whereby the combined effect of all the fats found in cocoa butter is quite neutral in regard to an individual's lipid (heart disease risk) profile. However, when milk chocolate, or lower grade chocolate is consumed, part of the total fat content of chocolate comes from milk fat or various other types of fat, which offer no extra health benefits, but instead create a risk factor with cardiovascular disease.
Despite the good news on cocoa not raising LDL cholesterol, even dark chocolate is a very calorie-dense food, so while the fat content may not invite cardiovascular disease from an atherogenic (arterial clogging) perspective, its regular consumption will add a lot of extra calories to someone's daily total, and as a result still affect those who have to watch their caloric intake. Nevertheless, being listed as the No.1 ingredient in many chocolate products, sugar is unquestionably a worse culprit compared to the fat content when addressing the effect of chocolate on someone's overall health.
Sugar is a well-known cause, contributing, or aggravating factor with a host of medical conditions, including heart disease, inflammatory conditions, immune system disorders, impaired phagocytosis, mood disorders, insulin and blood sugar disorders, leukemia, tooth decay, yeast infections, depletion of essential nutrients, osteoporosis, obesity, and others. (see also Acu-Cell "Sugar & Glycemic Index").
Cocoa products also contain pharmacological substances such as n-acylethanolamines that are related to cannabis, they contain stimulants such as phenylethylamine, which have an anti-depressant and amphetamine-like effect; and they contain compounds that stimulate the brain to release an opiate-like substance called anandamide. When drugs are used to block the brain's opiate receptors, the desire for chocolate (and other sweet and fatty foods) disappears -- confirming the addictive nature of these types of foods.
But despite cocoa being such an opiate and endorphin-releasing pharmacological powerhouse, who would have guessed that when chocoholics were given cocoa in capsules - without the added fat and sugar, and without the feel of chocolate melting in their mouths - it had no satisfying effect at all! However, while eating the actual chocolate bar satisfied the cravings for it, studies showed that there was no improvement with mood, relaxation, feeling content, depression, or guilt, after eating chocolate.
The health benefits of polyphenols are easily demonstrated in a test-tube environment, however cocoa also provides a considerable amount of Copper, which inhibits the action of Hesperidin, which is an essential flavanone (see also "Bioflavonoids"). Although some foods contain higher levels of copper by weight, the copper in coffee and cocoa products is much more bioavailable (absorbed and used) compared to that from other higher-level sources. High copper activity increases the risk for vascular degeneration such as varicose veins, hemorrhoids, aneurysms, bruising, heart disease, and stroke.
While low copper levels can be implicated with weak and fragile blood vessels also, high copper levels are much more common in many parts of the world, with nearly 90% of patients tested exhibiting a chemical profile that - in addition to their own unique chemistry - contained an underlying pattern showing the inhibiting effect of copper overload on various nutrients, which include Vitamin C, hesperidin, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, sulfur, and others.
The additional consumption of high copper sources such as chocolate and cocoa products, cola drinks, coffee, (as well as shellfish, liver, soy products, and some nuts and seeds), not only aggravates many high copper-related medical conditions, but it is responsible for creating new ones. At the same time, copper is an important co-factor for angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation in cancer), with most types of malignant or benign tumors, hemangiomas, fibroids, etc., being associated with elevated copper levels.
* Risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, joint degeneration, and others.
Dark, bitter chocolate has the highest catechin content, but at the same time has also the highest copper level. Light or milk chocolate has the lowest copper level, but also the lowest catechin content.
The health benefits gained by following a high flavonoid intake, and the resulting decrease of some medical problems is eventually offset by steadily increasing copper levels, which will inhibit flavonoid activity, and which will over time promote an increase in these very same medical conditions!
Weight Gain is a frequent consequence of supplementing copper and iron, so in addition to the extra calories encountered by consuming chocolate and cocoa products, one also has to deal with the weight gain that can result from just the copper and iron content alone, which should be kept in mind when reaching for that extra chocolate bar just for "Health Reasons."
By lowering Sulfur, high copper levels are a common cause or aggravating factor of osteoarthritis, for which glucosamine sulfate or MSM are frequently supplemented. If successful, they partly work by counteracting high copper levels and thus help to reverse or slow cartilage or joint degeneration. Other than the effect of chocolate on an individual's mood, elevated copper levels - by inhibiting sulfur - can adversely affect memory and concentration, so progressive copper storage as a result of long-term high copper intake, combined with increasingly diminishing sulfur levels can eventually contribute to, or lead to mental impairment or dementia. (see also Acu-Cell "Copper & Chromium" and "Selenium & Sulfur").
The high sugar content in chocolate increases Chromium requirements (chromium is an associated trace mineral to copper). The resulting high copper / low chromium ratio creates an increased risk for trabecular bone loss, and it can trigger or worsen blood sugar-related, and/or inflammatory conditions that may raise the risk or incidence of chronic tonsil infections, recurring bladder infections, some forms of arthritis, or similar problems of the immune system in prone individuals.
Chocolate contains theobromine and a small amount of caffeine, both being stimulants and members of the methylxanthine family. Although it increases alertness, theobromine doesn't have the same jittery effect on the heart like caffeine. However, theobromine can be toxic or even lethal to domestic animals such as dogs, cats, parrots and horses as a result of affecting their kidneys, heart, and central nervous system.
Another health risk and concern - particularly for young children - are the high Lead concentrations in cocoa and chocolate products, which according to the Environmental Health Perspectives (2005) , are supposed to be one of the highest reported for all food items, although there have been challenges to these claims.
From a clinical perspective, and putting aside the commercial hype that has been created of late to boost the image of chocolate - people with the highest intake of chocolate either end up with excessive copper levels, or elevated VLDL triglycerides (from all that sugar). On average, most chocoholic patients test high in both.
As is the case with other sweets - anything beyond a casual consumption of chocolate will result in reduced, not improved health, without even going into some more immediate health concerns that some individuals experience from consuming chocolate, such as allergic reactions, chronic mucus / sinus problems, heartburn, esophageal reflux (GERD), kidney stones, fibrocystic breast disease, migraine headaches, or aggravated PMS. Nevertheless - in moderation - chocolate can certainly be the Sinful Delight it was meant to be!