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Dark Chocolate Is Not a Health Food

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Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? That’s because the answer, according to many physicians is: “yes.”

Just do a simple Google search and you’ll find multiple articles highlighting the health benefits of dark chocolate. Headlines from media outlets — both obscure and mainstream — expound upon how healthy the delicious treat can be.

But just how much of this “healthy” push is the product of somewhat deceiving campaigns to boost chocolate’s image as something more than an indulgence?

Quite a bit, actually. And while it’s true that there are some health benefits from eating cocoa, dark chocolate isn’t the trendy health food it’s been made out to be.

The reality behind benefits of dark chocolate

Indeed, dark chocolate isn’t all bad.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that dark chocolate contains 50 to 90 percent cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. It doesn’t look that great when measured up to its competitors. Those percentages are significantly greater compared to the 10 to 50 percent of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and some form of milk that comprise milk chocolate.

What’s the good news?

Cocoa is full of flavanols, chemical compounds found in many vegetables and fruits that have been found to have health benefits, including antioxidant properties that can benefit heart health.

Flavanols have been shown to encourage the creation nitric oxide within the inner cell lining of blood vessels, which can improve blood flow and lead to lower blood pressure. Beyond this, the Harvard Chan School says that flavanols have been shown to increase people’s insulin sensitivity, suggesting a possible reduction of diabetes risk.

If you’re to believe the hype out there, you’d be ready to accept dark chocolate as a feel-good way to fight off everything from diabetes to a heart attack.

However, that image is deceiving.

Vox recently published a detailed article interrogating the prevailing notion of dark chocolate as a miracle “safe food.” In the article, journalist Julia Belluz took a look at 100 Mars-funded (yes, the makers of the popular chocolate bars) health studies that hinted at the health benefits of consuming cocoa- and chocolate-rich food items. 

Belluz quotes New York University Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, emerita, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, as saying that companies like Mars “made a conscious decision to invest in science” in order to make their product seem less like a tasty snack and more like a “health food.”

“You can now sit there with your (chocolate bar) and say, I’m getting my flavanoids,” Belluz told Vox.

It’s something of a marketing masterstroke that candy companies were able to take a treat your parents might’ve scolded you for having too much of as a child and repackaged it as a fail-safe preventive ailment for serious health problems.

Vox traces Mars’ efforts back to 1982, when the company behind Snickers and M&M’s set up the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science, a research arm of the candy company to examine and disseminate, in part, information on the health benefits of cocoa.

Vox reports that Mars’ scientific initiative — Mars Symbioscience — has supported 140-peer-reviewed scientific studies since 2005 to look at the health benefits of cocoa flavanols.

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