Chocolate may reduce blood pressure levels and lower the risk of heart disease, according to a study recently published in the European Heart Journal. This finding follows earlier research demonstrating possible health benefits of chocolate, including reduced risk of stroke, lowered blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and improved insulin sensitivity.
The researchers followed 19,357 people between the ages of 35 and 65 for at least ten years. Participants, who were enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) Study, received medical checkups at the start of the study and provided information about their lifestyle, health, and diet, including how frequently they ate a 50-gram (1.8-ounce) bar of chocolate and how many of these bars they consumed in each instance. Every two to three years until 2006, the participants received follow-up questionnaires asking whether they had had a heart attack or stroke; this information was then verified using medical records.
For analysis, the participants were divided into four groups based on how much chocolate they reported consuming. Those in the group that ate the most chocolate — an average of about 7.5 grams daily — were found to have a blood pressure that was lower by roughly 1 mm Hg systolic and 0.9 mm Hg diastolic than people in the group that ate the least chocolate. People eating the most chocolate also had a 27% reduced risk of heart attack and a 48% reduced risk of stroke compared to people eating the least chocolate.
Lead researcher Brian Bujisse, PhD, indicated that a “healthy-user effect” (a scenario in which the type of people who engage in a certain behavior are healthier people to begin with) is unlikely, because people who consumed more chocolate consumed lower levels of fruits, vegetables, and dairy compared to people eating less chocolate.
The researchers suspect that the flavanols (naturally occurring plant compounds) found in cocoa might be responsible for the benefits of chocolate on the heart. Because more flavanols are found in dark chocolate, its effect may be greater. The investigators note that further research is needed before any recommendations can be made about chocolate consumption.
Frank Ruschitzka, speaking on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology, stated that “Basic science has demonstrated quite convincingly that dark chocolate particularly, with a cocoa content of at least 70%, reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular and platelet function. However, before you rush to add dark chocolate to your diet, be aware that 100 g[rams] of dark chocolate contains roughly 500 calories. As such, you may want to subtract…calories, by cutting back on other foods, to avoid weight gain.”
To learn more, read the article “Chocolate Might Reduce Blood Pressure and Risk of Heart Disease, Research Suggests” or see the study’s abstract in the European Heart Journal.