Wellness

Sweet. Harvard science says chocolate is still good for the heart.

The sweet spot is two to six ounces a week on the darker side
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The Aztecs and the Mayans always knew. The hallowed beans fermented to make the bitter drink used in rituals of birth, marriage and death (a gourd of bloody chocolate was given those slated for human sacrifice to improve their pluck before a very final ritual dance) were even used as currency for a time. Still, Europeans didn't appreciate chocolate at first. When King Montezuma, thinking Cortés was a reincarnated deity, gave the colonial explorer his people's sanctified drink, Cortés dismissed it as a "a bitter drink for pigs". The very human foibles of Cortés and his crew are too numerous to list here but honey or cane sugar eventually made their way into the drink and like many other misappropriated goods, chocolate swept Europe as a fashionable extravagance sipped by the rich. Industrialization handily turned the stuff into a global luxury and the world has yet to stop lusting after all things chocolatey.

Increasingly, we cling to toothsome luxuries with thinning hope as nutritional science takes more and more of them away for health reasons. "Don't eat/smoke/drink/look at that. It's bad for you." But scientists seem to know what early civilizations knew even in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: chocolate is special. Case in point, the scientific name for the tree that yields those decidedly precious beans is Theobroma Cacao – it means "food of the gods." Consequently, when it comes to the study of chocolate, there seems to be no shortage of scientific funding aimed at proving over (and over and over) again that it is, in fact, pretty good for you. Take heart (quite literally), chocolate is one less luxury you'll need to snatch from the jaws of unfeeling scientific data that would otherwise reduce it to another life-shortening poison. Science, yet again, proves it's really good for your ticker.

Recent research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the aptly named medical trade journal Heart, found that consuming moderate amounts of chocolate was linked to considerably lower risk factors of one common (and dangerous) form of heartbeat irregularity. The affliction, known as atrial fibrillation, is linked to a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, cognitive decline, dementia, and yes, death. But there's something beneficial in chocolate that combats the biological baddie.

In a sizeable study called the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study, over 55,500 Danes (men and women) were scrutinized for existing health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The study also looked closely at markers of body mass index, cholesterol, diet and lifestyle choice over the course of nearly 14 years. What it found was chocolate does wonders for the human animal – particularly our anatomical heart, though it could be argued our figurative hearts benefit by default with each ounce of chocolatey goodness. It may serve you to buy a scale because the ounces really do count here.

Danes who indulged in one to three ounces of chocolate a month were 10 percent less likely to develop menacing heart arrhythmias than Danes who scoffed less than one ounce in the same period. Upping the dark and delicious dose helped. One ounce a week resulted in a favourable decrease of 17 percent. Before you go full chocotarian, note that moderation did matter. Men and women who were throwing back more than an ounce of chocolate a day only showed a 16 percent lower rate of atrial fibrillation. In the end, the sweet spot, it seems, was a two to six ounce dose spread out over a week. That dietary dose lowered arrhythmia rates by 20 percent.

Lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky says the data "adds to the accumulating evidence on the health benefits of moderate chocolate intake and highlights the importance of behavioral factors for potentially lowering the risk of arrhythmias." Food is medicine. Chocolate is food. Chocolate is medicine. Listen, I didn't write the transitive laws, I just enforce them but do consult your GP regarding my "chocolate is medicine" assertion. Interestingly though, tiny portions still showed measurable benefits. Mostofsky adds, "even small amounts of cocoa consumption can have a positive health impact." Like all "medicine", too much can be a bad thing. Mostofsky is careful to underline that this isn't a prescription for mainlining cocoa into your bloodstream. Excessive chocolate consumption typically translates to excessive sugar and fat consumption which in turn translates to love handles which can in turn translate to metabolic syndrome (the crappy cluster of conditions that increase one's risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes). The transitive law applies here too. Because of its higher sugar and fat levels, milk chocolate is not touted as the health champion its darker sibling is (although that is changing). Lean dark, but the sweet spot again is two to six ounces a week if you intend to stay vigilant with your dosages.

The study is certainly not the first of its kind. We've known for years that the flavanols in chocolate may bolster blood vessels and cardiovascular function. Actually, it's the fermentation process chocolate goes through in your gut that results in the anti-inflamatories that improve blood flow making it the big health hero we now know it to be.

Either way, there's plenty of science giving you an excuse to honour chocolate the way it was always meant to be honoured, as a divine luxury – that we get to stuff into our face holes. In moderation.  

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