The sight of a chocolate drink or a chocolate bar is quite tempting. Most chocolate lovers will not be able to resist even the thought of it. But what about its nutritive value? Should you have chocolate if you have health problems? Does chocolate increase inflammation? Many such questions often revolve around consuming chocolate.
Does Chocolate Increase Inflammation?
Many disorders like diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, muscle, and joint problems, and cancer are thought to be a result of excess inflammation in the body. As a part of living with it – to manage these conditions and reduce chronic inflammation several dietary and lifestyle changes are advised. Having an anti-inflammatory diet is one of them. Experts believe, Mediterranean and plant-based diets are low in red meat and processed foods and can offer some protection against chronic inflammation. These include foods with antioxidants, such as nuts, olive oil, dark chocolate, beans, fruits, and vegetables.1
With regards to chocolate, there are a few things that we need to consider – the type of chocolate, the quantity, and the form in which it is taken. Many studies suggest that cocoa and dark chocolate possess anti-inflammatory properties. While sugary products are a big no as they tend to increase inflammation and certain preparations of chocolate contain plenty of sugar, this is an important thing to be considered.
In earlier times, dark chocolate was considered a treasured food and was taken as a bitter fermented drink mixed with spices or wine. What you get today is a result of several processes the cocoa has undergone to become chocolate bars and other products. Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar, while milk chocolate contains 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. Chocolates of lower quality may also contain butterfat, vegetable oils, artificial colors, or flavors. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.2
It is hence important to understand which type of chocolate can help decrease inflammation and which are beneficial or rather can be harmful as they can increase inflammation. Dark chocolate is believed to be a rich source of magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, phosphorus, and flavanols.
What Do Studies Have To Say?
In general, processed, refined, or heavily seasoned foods, red meat, fried foods, cheese, high-fat dairy, alcohol, excess fats, and sugars are known to increase inflammation. If chocolate preparations include these particularly excess sugars and fats, they can increase inflammation in some. However, dark chocolate, which contains more cocoa solids can be beneficial as an anti-inflammatory food. Let us look at what studies say about chocolate and its role in inflammation.
According to a report on chocolate, its history, and its effect on health, chocolate is known for its flavor and recently, dark chocolate had gained more popularity. The interest in chocolate has grown, owing to its physiological and potential health effects. These include controlling blood pressure, insulin levels, vascular functions, oxidation processes, prebiotic effects, glucose homeostasis, and lipid metabolism. However, further studies are needed to confirm the beneficial effects on health and ways of consumption of chocolate in daily diet, viz. the dose, mode and time.3
A critical review of randomized controlled trials to study the impact of cocoa consumption on the inflammation process was done. It concluded that the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa may reduce inflammation, probably by reduced activation of monocytes and neutrophils. This may prevent or even reduce vascular inflammation but it depends on the extent of the inflammation as well as the type of cocoa product used. To get more clear evidence on the anti-inflammatory effects of cocoa, more studies should be conducted considering the specific markers of leucocyte activation.4
Another study showed the beneficial effects of dark chocolate on leukocyte adhesion factors and vascular function in overweight men, another relation to inflammation. This study provides new insights into how chocolate affects endothelial health by demonstrating that chocolate consumption, besides improving vascular function, also lowers the adherence capacity of leukocytes in circulation.5
While studying the effects of cocoa on inflammatory markers of cardiovascular disease, the researchers concluded that cocoa polyphenols are shown to possess a range of cardiovascular-protective properties, and can play a meaningful role in modulating different inflammatory markers involved in atherosclerosis.6
An interesting study was conducted on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, where they were given caffeine in the form of coffee or dark chocolate. It concluded that adding caffeine to the management regimen can reduce the symptoms of severe methotrexate intolerance in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Caffeine relieved the symptoms of severe methotrexate intolerance in 80% of patients after 3 months of adding caffeine to the management regimen.7
In a study done to study the effects of cocoa flavanols on exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), it was shown that cocoa flavanols possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that can reduce the symptoms of EIMD. As this condition is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation, muscle soreness, and reductions in muscle function, it is clear that cocoa can help decrease inflammation.8
Cocoa is rich in flavanols, which are plant chemicals that can help to protect the heart. They can protect the inner lining of blood vessels. It helps them relax, improves blood flow, and lowers blood pressure. These chemicals can increase insulin sensitivity for the time being but they could help reduce the risk of diabetes in the long run. Dark chocolate contains up to 2-3 times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids than milk chocolate. 2 Higher percentages of cocoa solids mean higher caffeine content, which too is known to help reduce inflammation.
Dark chocolate is high in calories and can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess. Some chocolates contain saturated fats, so there is a risk of raising blood lipid levels. Although the flavanols in dark chocolate can offer heart-protective effects, it is necessary to consider the overall impact of consuming chocolates. Dark chocolate can help reduce inflammation however it is better to avoid excess processing, the addition of sugars and fats. Consuming dark chocolate in moderate quantities can offer better health benefits.