Blog | Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cocoa may lower blood pressure, risk of heart disease and stroke

In case you missed it, I'm happy to report something that should please most everyone. A study published in BMJ showed that consumption of chocolate (candies, candy bars, chocolate drinks, cookies and deserts) lowered the rates of stroke, coronary heart disease and blood pressure. It seems that chocolate is good for you!

cocoa by monica renata via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseThe study (which did not receive funding from the chocolate industry) included 114,009 people and performed a meta-analysis of the medical literature. They found that people who ate the most chocolate reduced their risk of heart disease by as much as 37% and their risk of stroke by 29%, compared with those who ate the least chocolate. Having chocolate regularly, rather than binging, seemed to bring the most benefit. They did not confirm the difference between dark, milk or white chocolate, nor were they able to say what amount is of most benefit.

Before you run out and eat a chocolate decadence cake or a bag of Hershey's kisses, there are a few caveats to consider. All chocolate may not be the same in terms of benefit and most American candy chocolate is made with high sugar and dairy fat, not cacao beans. The extra sugar and fat probably reduces the health benefits of pure chocolate. Pure chocolate has no sugar and no carbohydrates.

A meta-analysis is not nearly as good or reliable as a prospective, controlled study. It is a review of past studies and a "pooling" of the data to come to conclusions. Because the studies are not consistent, there is no way to tease out the "types" of chocolate or even what is mean by eating "higher" quantities of chocolate. Some trends can be identified, but there is no true cause-effect with a meta-analysis. It simply points researchers in a direction. For these reasons, the authors recommended further research to prove (or disprove) that chocolate can actually benefit the heart.

Until those trials are done, we can take this information and be happy that there "may" be health benefits from eating chocolate. We already know that fats, sugar and excess calories are extremely health detrimental, but regular consumption of chocolate with a high cocoa content might be OK.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.