The Mysterious Health Benefits of Chocolate

Maybe there's a reason that the chocolate bean's scientific name, Obroma cacao, is Greek for food of the gods. (Image credit: Stockexpert)

Chocolate has been credited with everything from reducing stress to helping to decrease the risk of heart disease. But do these claims hold a nugget of truth?

Over the past several years, studies have steadily uncovered the numerous health benefits of chocolate.

Most recently, it was found that people who ate a weekly serving of chocolate were 22 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who ate no chocolate, according to a study of more than 44,000 healthy participants. The findings were presented at the 2010 American Academy of Neurology's Annual Meeting in Toronto in April.

While chocolate is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids, which may have a protective effect against stroke, study author Sarah Sahib of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, noted that "more research is needed to determine whether chocolate truly lowers stroke risk, or whether healthier people are simply more likely to eat chocolate than others."

More evidence

In 2009, a study found that people who rated themselves as highly stressed had lower levels of stress hormones after eating chocolate every day for two weeks. In the study, which was conducted by the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland, 30 subjects ate 1.4 ounces (40 g) of dark chocolate daily, or a little less than a regular-sized Hershey's bar, which contains 1.55 ounces (44 g).

The volunteers showed a significant "reduction of levels of stress-associated hormones and normalization of the systemic stress metabolic signatures" researcher Sunil Kochhar wrote in the study, which was published in the Journal of Proteome Research.

Chocolate may even help you do math, according to a 2009 study conducted by researchers at Northumbria University in the UK. The study showed that people did a better job of counting backward by threes from a random number after they had consumed a hot cocoa drink containing large amounts (500mg, equal to about five bars of chocolate) of flavanols, an antioxidant found in cocoa beans that can increase blood flow to the brain.

Another study found that small, daily amounts of dark chocolate change the levels of C-reactive protein, which is associated with inflammation, in the body. Participants in the 2008 study who ate about one-fourth of an ounce of dark chocolate a day for comparison, a Hershey's Kiss is about 4.5 grams had a "considerably reduced" inflammatory state, according to the researchers, whose findings were published in the Journal of Nutrition.

"The best effect is obtained by consuming an average amount of 6.7 grams of chocolate per day, corresponding to a small square of chocolate twice or three times a week," said Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the Northumbria study, which is a part of the Moli-sani Project, one of the largest health studies ever conducted in Europe.

Here's the short and sweet truth: eating chocolate - in moderation, of course - does seem to have some legitimate benefits, which may be due to its antioxidants.

Maybe there's a reason that the chocolate bean's scientific name, Obroma cacao, is Greek for "food of the gods."

Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll try to answer it. Due to the volume of questions, we unfortunately can't reply individually, but we will publish answers to the most intriguing questions, so check back soon.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.