Proof, at last, that chocolate is a wonder food! Yes, I know I’ve thousands of words debunking bad science and bogus ideas about health and bodies. (Offline, it’s upwards of a thousand pages.) But I’m also on record as supporting the health benefits of red wine and coffee (oh, and more on coffee here and here, for nervous new moms). And now, with chocolate, we’ve got the trifecta! A yummy, healthy hattrick!
The bottom line is that a meta-study just published in the British Medical Journal found that the people who ate the most chocolate were 37% less likely to have cardiovascular disease and 29% less likely to suffer a stroke. No consistent, measurable impact was seen on diabetes or heart failure. Popular reporting on the new findings has actually been mighty thin, beyond the gleeful headlines. The New York Times and the medical newswire Ivanhoe both offered up the bare bones: the good news, plus a few cautionary phrases about the need for further research and a disclaimer that you shouldn’t just go hog out on chocolate because OH NOES, THE FATZ!
So I took a peek at the study, which is freely available on line. As all important research should be! I don’t care if we historians have to go through a library; the people who want to read my work know where to find me, anyway. But health is a public good, such research is often publicly underwritten, and most medical journals are part of a rapacious oligopoly raking in 40% profits on other people’s work. Earlier this week, the Guardian compared these journals to Rupert Murdoch, except with extra, surplus, bonus evil. Kudos to the BMJ for bucking this trend and letting regular folks view the full text without ponying up $35 or more for the privilege.
On to the study itself, which is a review of seven earlier studies that were mostly observational in character. None were randomized and controlled, so probably the whole lot would be discarded as rubbish by the Cochrane Review. They largely relied on questionnaires administered to patients, which raises the specter of recall bias. (I often can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.) As in any meta-study, comparison is difficult because the individual studies relied on different measures and methods. But they weren’t crap science, either (that was the point of excluding other studies that weren’t adequately rigorous or informative).
Importantly, most of the studies under review did make serious attempts to control for confounding variables (even though this reader was prepared to forgive just about any methodological flaw):
Five of the seven studies included in this meta-analysis reported a significant reduction in the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders associated with higher levels of chocolate intake (one on cocoa intake), even after adjustment for potential confounders, including age, physical activity, body mass index, smoking status, dietary factors, education, and drug use. Although we did not find any experimental studies (randomised controlled trials) evaluating the effect of chocolate on hard cardiometabolic outcomes, our findings corroborate those of previous meta-analyses of experimental and observational studies in different populations related to risk factors for cardiometabolic disorders.
In other words, the literature is pretty consistent: chocolate is good for the heart and your whole cardiovascular system. And contrary to how some commenters at the Times were trying to spin it, those benefits were not negated by fat, whether in the chocolate or in the human consumer. They accrued even in people who ate the cheap, sugary stuff (though this is one area where I’d like to see research, which would no doubt confirm my own prejudice in favor of very dark chocolate). I am not surprised by this, since chocolate milk has already gotten the Dr. SunGold stamp of healthy hedonism.
Another way in which this strikes me as pretty good science: The authors point to a couple of plausible biological mechanisms that could make chocolate protective, which include “increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide, which subsequently might lead to improvements in endothelial function, reductions in platelet function, and additional beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood lipids.” Nitric oxide, as you may recall, is the linchpin behind the effectiveness of a certain little blue pill. Viagra was initially under development as a cardiovascular drug that just happened to have felicitous effects on blood vessels located further south.
So in conclusion, if your chocolate bar is still rigid after 4 hours, you may want to consult your physician. Or you could just take it in hand and nibble it ’til it softens. Melting it into a hot fudge sauce is another medically advisable option. And remember: all that erotic enjoyment is good for you!
As for me, I’m trying to get a syllabus together this evening, so no cocoa-inspired sexytimes for me! But I just poured a glass of red wine and broke out oa square of the dark stuff. For breakfast, it’ll be my classic homemade mocha with Snowville milk. Now some intrepid researcher just needs to reveal the wonder nutrients in cheese.