April 24, 2012 -- If you're eating chocolate for the health benefits -- and aren't we all? -- you must pick wisely, new research suggests.
"Eat dark chocolate, not white chocolate," says researcher Mee Young Hong, PhD, associate professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University. She compared dark and white chocolate, looking at health effects, such as improving cholesterol.
Dark chocolate was the clear winner, she says. She is due to present the findings at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego.
Hong compared white chocolate, which has no cocoa solids, to regular dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa. The cocoa solids contain healthy compounds called flavonols. These have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
She also tested dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa that had been overheated or ''bloomed." ("You know when you leave chocolate in the [hot] car?" she asks. That's ''bloomed" -- melted and then maybe hardened again.)
She wanted to see if the melting would rob the dark chocolate of the health effects.
Hong's team assigned 31 men and women to eat about 1.7 ounces (a standard-size chocolate bar is about 1.5 ounces) of dark, white, or ''bloomed" dark chocolate every day for 15 days. Before and after the study, Hong's team measured blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
Compared to those who ate white chocolate, those eating either dark chocolate had:
She didn't find differences in blood pressure between the white chocolate eaters and the dark chocolate eaters.
As for why the dark chocolate may help blood sugar levels, Hong says its antioxidants may help the body use its insulin more efficiently to control blood sugar. This, in turn, helps to lower blood sugar levels naturally.
Compared to people who ate white chocolate, those who ate dark lowered their bad cholesterol by about 20%, Hong tells WebMD. Dark chocolate eaters increased their good cholesterol by 20%, compared to white chocolate eaters.
The white chocolate, but not the dark, made the skin blood flow slow down -- not a desirable quality. Skin blood flow is a way to measure how the blood vessels are functioning.
The study did not have industry funding.
Chocolate for Health: Perspectives
Some of the findings echo that of other research, says Joe Vinson, PhD, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton and a long-time researcher on antioxidants in foods. He reviewed the findings.
"The fact that white chocolate (containing fat and sugar) makes the skin blood flow slow down is newsworthy," he says. The message to stay healthy, he says, is: "Don't eat fat and sugar without antioxidants."
The finding about bloomed chocolate is reassuring if you're wondering whether to eat old chocolate, Vinson says. He says it may look bad but that it still has active antioxidants.
Other studies have found lowering of blood pressure with dark chocolate, says Eric Ding, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He reviewed the findings.
The fact that Hong did not, he says, could simply be because of the small size of the study.
"The LDL decrease and the HDL increase are consistent with previous research," Ding tells WebMD.
The blood sugar finding is newer, he says.
Hong reminds chocolate lovers that moderation is key.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.