Is Chocolate Good for the Heart? It Depends.

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Over the years, many things have been claimed to help cardiovascular health. Some of them, such as regular exercise, have been proven to strongly help the heart. Other things don’t require as much exertion, such as eating oatmeal or low-cholesterol diets. Then there is the relatively small group of vices that doctors say might just be good for you—in modest amounts, of course. These include wine and chocolate.

A recent study published in the European Heart Journal was one of the latest to conclude that chocolate is good for you. As CNN reported the story:

“Eating as little as a quarter of an ounce of chocolate each day — an amount equal to about one small Easter egg — may lower your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke, a new study has found. For best results, the chocolate should be dark, experts say. In the study, Dr. Buijsse and his colleagues followed nearly 20,000 people for an average of eight years. The researchers surveyed the study participants about their chocolate consumption (as well as the rest of their diet), and also tracked the heart attacks and strokes that occurred in the group.”

All this is welcome news for chocolate lovers, but a few words of caution are in order before you add a 3 Musketeers bar to your diet in the name of heart health.

There’s some confusion—and a big difference—between chocolate the ingredient and chocolate the confection. Chocolate confection is typically made with sugar, vanilla (or its equivalent, vanillin), and cocoa powder (made from roasted beans from the cocoa tree). This is what most people envision when they think of chocolate: KitKat bars, Hersey bars, chocolate coated anything.

As the CNN piece notes, that’s not what the scientific studies use in their research; the scientists use chocolate that is usually 70% or more cocoa mass, which contain healthy flavinols. While high-concentration dark chocolate bars can be found (especially in specialty shops), most common chocolate candy bars contain relatively little cocoa. The balance is sugar, milk solids, and saturated fat—the health effects of which negate any benefit to the heart.

So chocolate lovers can take heart in the new research—but keep in mind that the difference between a quarter-ounce of 80% cocoa chocolate and an entire candy bar of milk chocolate may be the difference between fit and fat.