The Life and Work of a Chocolate Health Researcher

"I typically eat one 3-6 gram piece of 50-70 percent dark chocolate per day."

Chocolate Reviews/Flickr

Karin Ried, Ph.D., is research director for the National Institute of Integrative Medicine in Melbourne, Australia, and is one of the leading chocolate researchers in the world. Her main interest is in chocolate's effect on blood pressure. Her research, along with that of others, has shown that regularly eating small amounts of chocolate can lower blood pressure enough to improve heart health.

How does one get started as a chocolate-focused researcher?

It happened as an intersection of my interests in nutritional medicine and cardiovascular health.

How much chocolate do you personally eat?

I typically eat one 3-6 gram piece of 50-70 percent dark chocolate per day. I choose products that are high in cocoa and low in sugar.

Who funds your research? Is it hard to get funding for studies about chocolate?

I've been supported by a small university and hospital research funds, and am seeking support from the industry. Government funding is hard to come by for preventive research with natural substances.

Do subjects ever come to realize that being in a chocolate study isn't as much fun as it originally seemed?

In one clinical trial we asked participants to eat 50 grams [about half a bar] of 70 percent dark chocolate every day for three months. There was a small number of participants, yes, who withdrew because that much was unpalatable.

Many chocolate-intervention studies have asked participants to consume a large amount (100 grams per day) over a short period of time (two weeks), which actually tends to be easier to comply with than less over a longer period.

In studies, do you use a certain grade of chocolate? If so, does that make conclusions applicable to all types of chocolate?

Dark chocolate contains the largest amount of cocoa flavanols (50-85 percent), the active ingredient responsible for the blood pressure-lowering effect. Milk chocolate contains smaller amounts of cocoa, around 30 percent. However, the beneficial effects of cocoa may be slightly compromised by the high sugar content in most milk chocolates. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa flavanols.

Why is it that some chocolate tastes waxy?

In the processing of chocolate, cocoa beans are dried, fermented, roasted (up to 120 °C), mixed (conching), and alkalized (dutching). Sugar, milk, vanilla, and lecithin emulsifiers are added to make chocolate as we know it today. Various chocolate manufacturers have fine-tuned the processing, leading to different flavors and smoothness of chocolates, as well as altered cocoa and flavanol content in various cocoa products.

Is it true that many people who think they're allergic to chocolate are instead allergic to certain mites that find their way into the manufacturing process?

Maybe, but allergic reactions might also be caused by milk, nuts, caffeine/theobromine, or soy lecithin.

What would you say are the main health benefits of chocolate?

Our research suggests flavanol-rich cocoa products are effective in reducing blood pressure by 2-3 mm Hg in the short term. Epidemiological studies have linked even a small reduction in blood pressure with beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.

The reduction in blood pressure achieved with cocoa is comparable to other lifestyle modifications, such as diet and exercise, which can produce a 3-5 mm Hg reduction. So it may serve as complementary treatment option.

How much are we talking here? At what level of consumption are the bulk of benefits obtained?

We did a review of 20 studies, and participants in those ate between three to 100 grams of chocolate per day. That's anywhere from one piece to a full bar of chocolate containing 50-85 percent cocoa.

There's not data yet on a recommended optimal amount to be eating. Smaller dosages may be as effective as larger dosages. But larger daily intakes of chocolate may not be as acceptable, practical, or tolerable as smaller daily dosages.

Are there any chocolate-only benefits, or all the health effects also available through other foods?

Dietary flavanols found in cocoa are also present in green tea, berries, and red wine. All play a role in cardiovascular risk factor reduction when part of a comprehensive lifestyle approach including regular exercise, healthy weight, and a balanced diet.

What is there left to learn about chocolate's health benefits?

We need to conduct long-term intervention trials to better understand the cardiovascular effects over time of cocoa and chocolate consumption.