Dark chocolate or red wine?

Of course I would like to believe the scientists who claim that eating dark chocolate positively affects our wellbeing and that drinking moderate amounts of red wine improve our health. I like both dark chocolate and red wine and sometimes together to get a double wellness whammy. What’s not to like?

Question is are the scientists actually right? We have written numerous posts about claimed superfoods doing wonders to our health when it is actually the overall diet that is most important, not the individual components as such. Sure we have also fallen into the trap of praising some individual foods as the popular press did this time for fashionable dark chocolate and red wine. Even scientists want to get some attention.

Dark chocolate and health

Let’s start with reviewing the dark chocolate findings. Scientists from the University College London, the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services Canada assessed data from 13,626 adults from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Daily chocolate consumption and type of chocolate was assessed against scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire, which assesses depressive symptoms.

As usual, a range of other factors including height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, household income, physical activity, smoking and chronic health problems were taken into account to ensure the study only measured chocolate’s effect on depressive symptoms. Overall, 11.1% of the population reported any chocolate consumption, with 1.4% reporting dark chocolate consumption.

The scientists found that eating dark chocolate positively affected mood and relieved depressive symptoms. As a matter of fact, individuals eating any amount of dark chocolate had 70% lower odds of reporting clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who reported not eating chocolate at all.

So far so good!

Woman smile

To be believable it is important to find a biological mechanism that can explain the results. And there are several. Chocolate contains a number of psychoactive ingredients which produce a feeling of euphoria and phenylethylamine which is believed to be important for regulating people’s moods. Also, dark chocolate in particular has a higher concentration of flavonoids, antioxidant polyphenols that have been shown to improve inflammation and play a role in the onset of depression.

Another strength of the study is that daily chocolate consumption was derived from two 24‐hour dietary recalls and not from much more dubious food frequency questionnaires that are so common.

And the bad!

Although the study included a large overall sample, there were less than 200 individuals that reported dark chocolate consumption. There could also be other confounding factors not taken into account.

There is some caution expressed by the scientists themselves claiming that further research is required to clarify causation. It could be the case that depression causes people to lose their interest in eating chocolate, or there could be other factors that make people both less likely to eat dark chocolate and to be depressed.

What about red wine and health?

Scientists at King’s College, London have reported that red wine consumption could be linked to better gut health. The study included a group of 916 female twins and tested the effects of consuming beer, cider, red wine, white wine and spirits on the gut microbiome, the micro-organisms found in the digestive tract.

And compared to other alcoholic drinks they found that the gut microbiome of red wine drinkers was more diverse – a sign of better gut health. The researchers speculated that the positive effect of red wine could be due to its higher amount of chemicals called polyphenols that act as antioxidants.

So what to say!

Well, this could be a big thing.

We know that our gut microbiota can affect multiple aspects of our general health and play a role in many illnesses. As a matter of fact, gut microbes are responsible for producing thousands of chemical metabolites affecting our overall metabolism, our immune system and our brain.

We have long known of the unexplained benefits of red wine on heart health. The study findings that moderate red wine consumption is associated with greater diversity and a healthier gut microbiome could at least partly explain its beneficial effects on heart health.

And there is more

As a check on possible genetic or family biases, the scientists found that the twin who drank red wine more often than the related twin had a more diverse gut flora. White wine drinkers who should be socially and culturally similar, had no significant differences in diversity.

Also, in further support of the findings they were shown to be consistent with results from two other studies of similar size in the US (the American Gut project) and Belgium (Flemish Gut Project) basing the conclusions on a total of about 3000 twins.

And in a previous experimental Spanish study from 2012, admittedly involving only ten healthy middle-aged males, the volunteers were given one of three different beverages to drink each day in each of three 20-day periods: normal strength red wine, low alcoholic red wine and gin. Drinking any type of red wine resulted in a larger percent of certain beneficial gut bacteria, but consuming gin had no effect on the gut flora.

So all good?

Not so fast.

Note that again the main study was observational and not experimental and the previous experimental study was very small. The study subjects in the observational study self-reported their food and drink intake with the usual associated bias. The scientists then prospectively tried to statistically link the reported alcoholic drink consumption with test results from the gut microbial analysis. Using twins strengthens the findings but doesn’t conclusively show causality.

There are the usual professional warning that the positives should still be weighed up against the negative impacts of alcohol. Any potential benefits of red wine polyphenols should be considered alongside alcohol’s links to over 200 health conditions, including heart disease and cancers.

But the beneficial effects were achieved by a very moderate glass of red wine a week or even a fortnight.

The moral of the story

If you’re going to eat chocolate pick the dark variety and you will not only have an enjoyable time but you might also be happier.

And the same goes for alcohol consumption. Drink in moderation and pick red wine and the resulting happiness might also be associated with improved health.

Also remember that the beneficial polyphenols found in dark chocolate and red wine can also be found in a range of other foods.

Dark chocolate’s beneficial deeds

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: André Karwath)

There are several different varieties of chocolate (Photo: André Karwath)

Having dealt with hazards in food during a lifetime, it is always nice to be able to look at the benefit side. We all need good news stories. However, even good news stories can be deceptive. There is much fuss made over what is called superfoods, while the overall diet is more important. And scientists test individual food components in isolation reporting highly beneficial effects in unrealistic animal experiments that have no relevance to real life. Resveratrol that can be found in red wine is supposed to be heart protective, but will require daily consumption of many bottles of wine to reach an effective dose.

But dark chocolate seems to be the real thing with normal consumption amounts sufficient to be beneficial to health.

Not all chocolates are the same

Chocolate is made from cocoa solids (cacao), mixed with fat (cocoa butter) and finely powdered sugar to produce a solid confectionery. There are several types of chocolate, dark, milk and white, classified according to the proportion of cocoa solids used in a particular formulation.

Dark chocolate, also known as “bittersweet” or “semisweet” chocolate, contains little or no added sugar, but plenty of antioxidant flavonoids that contribute to the dark colour. More flavonoids means darker chocolate.

Dark chocolate has already been hailed for its positive effects on cardiovascular health and can help lower blood pressure.

Milk chocolate is not a good antioxidant source as milk binds to antioxidants in chocolate making them unavailable.

White chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all and therefore is not a good source of antioxidants.

Let’s look at the details

Nitric oxide reduces blood pressure.

Dark chocolate increases the effect of nitric oxide in reducing blood pressure.

It is widely known that dietary nitrate leads to the substantial elevation of circulating nitrite, which is subsequently converted into bioactive nitric oxide. Bioactive nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels, increases glucose uptake and regulate muscular contraction. Dietary supplementation with nitrate rich beetroot juice has become increasingly popular in athletes and has consistently been shown to reduce oxygen demands during submaximal exercise allowing athletes to go further for longer.

Dark chocolate works a little differently. Cocoa beans contain a substance called epicatechin, a flavanol that releases vasoactive components from the endothelial cells in blood vessels increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide. The increased bioavailability and activity of nitric oxide dilate blood vessels and increases blood flow, resulting in a reduction of blood pressure. Previous research have shown that as little as 6g per day can reduce mild hypertension, while around 40g per day can increase blood flow also in healthy patients.

Providing an edge

The previous findings have now been confirmed in a study undertaken at London’s Kingston University The scientists found that the tasty treat could help give sports enthusiasts an extra edge in their fitness training. They used a group of nine amateur cyclists. After undergoing initial fitness tests to establish a baseline for comparison, the participants were split into two groups. The first group was asked to replace one of its normal daily snacks with 40g of a dark chocolate for a fortnight, while the other participants substituted 40g of white chocolate for one of their daily snacks as a control.

The effects of the athletes’ daily chocolate consumption were then measured in a series of cycling exercise tests. The cyclists’ heart rates and oxygen consumption levels were measured during moderate exercise and in time trials. After a seven-day interval, the groups then switched chocolate types and the two-week trial and subsequent exercise tests were repeated.

After eating dark chocolate, the riders used less oxygen when cycling at a moderate pace and also covered more distance in a two-minute flat-out time trial.

All good news.

Benefits confirmed by EFSA

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: Simon A. Eugster)

Only dark chocolate is beneficial to health (Photo: Simon A. Eugster)

And the beneficial effects have been confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority.

The Belgian chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, has exclusive use of an existing authorised claim stating that cocoa flavanols “help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow”. The authorised conditions of use require the product label to state that 200mg of cocoa flavanols are needed for the beneficial effect. The current claim can only be used for cocoa beverages with cocoa powder or for dark chocolate which provides at least a daily intake of 200mg of cocoa flavanols.

There has been concern that authorising claims on products such as chocolate could encourage over-consumption. However, the EFSA Opinion states that the amount required for the effect can be eaten within the context of a balanced diet.

So as long as you keep within your normal calorie intake level, feel no guilt when indulging in some dark chocolate.

Time for some dark chocolate indulgence

Eating dark chocolate is good for health (Photo: Boz Bros)

Eating dark chocolate can be good for your health (Photo: Boz Bros)

No surprise here, it has been known for quite some time that consuming dark chocolate can improve your health. Mind you, I am not talking about binge eating, but a decent although slightly restrained consumption. Previous research has linked chocolate consumption to many health benefits. One study has suggested that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may prevent memory decline, while another study found that eating moderate amounts of chocolate could reduce the risk of stroke.

Just in are new results from a further study of dark chocolate consumption. It seems to be a popular topic creating lots of publicity. And this time it is not results from another correlation study of epidemiological findings or an animal study, but results from a real trial on real people. It might seem too good to be true, but dark chocolate is actually good for you and scientists managed to find out why.

Study design

The scientists selected 44 middle-aged overweight men for the trial. Over two periods of four weeks, the men were required to eat either 70 g of regular dark chocolate each day or 70 g of specially produced dark chocolate with high levels of flavanols – naturally occurring antioxidants found in some plants, including the cocoa plant. Both chocolates were similar in their cocoa content.

Before and after both intervention periods, researchers performed a variety of measurements that are important indicators of vascular health. Scientists also evaluated the sensory properties of the high flavanol chocolate and the regular chocolate and collected the motivation scores of the participants to eat these chocolates during the intervention. As if that would be needed.

During the study, participants were advised to refrain from certain energy dense food products to prevent further weight gain. Too much chocolate can be fattening and they were already quite corpulent.

The findings of the trial

In the randomised double-blind crossover study, the scientists found that eating dark chocolate lowered the augmentation index, a key vascular health predictor, and reduced leukocyte adhesion marker expression.

Hrmm, all fine then, but what does it all mean? And here is the good news. Dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels. That’s huge news when it comes to heart health; both arterial stiffness and white blood cell adhesion are known factors that play a significant role in atherosclerosis – thickening and hardening of the arteries.

Scientists destroying dark chocolate indulgence (Photo: Military Health)

Scientists replacing dark chocolate indulgence with pill (Photo: Military Health)

What’s more, the researchers found that although the chocolate higher in flavanols increased sensory stimulation in participants, both types of chocolate produced the same heart benefits. That’s a challenge to previous research that has suggested that the health benefits from consuming chocolate, wine and berries are due to their flavanol content.

Eat dark chocolate while you can

So the dark side of chocolate is a healthy one. But typical for scientists they said that the effect that dark chocolate has on our bodies is encouraging not only because it allows us to indulge with less guilt, but also because it could lead the way to therapies that do the same thing as dark chocolate but with better and more consistent results. So they still want to deprive us of chocolate indulgence despite its beneficial effect.

Until the dark chocolate drug is developed, eat while there still is time!

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