To a dark chocolate lover, the possibility that their favorite treat could protect against cancer might sound too good to be true. And, largely, it is.
As a general rule, no specific food, no matter how healthy, can single-handedly lower cancer risk. What matters, says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, LDN, a senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber, is one’s overall dietary pattern.
A balanced diet that includes plenty of plant-based foods has the greatest health benefits, according to Wright. Including dark chocolate in such a diet as an occasional treat is fine, she says, but don’t expect it to stave off cancer.
Dark chocolate, which contains at least 50% cocoa solids, is sometimes touted as healthful because it is rich in flavanols, compounds that help reduce inflammation and protect against cell damage. Because inflammation and cell damage can be related to cancer, researchers have examined whether dark chocolate consumption is protective against cancer. The results of their studies are mixed — some reporting a lower risk of some cancers, some finding a higher risk, and others showing no effect, according to the American Cancer Society.
Eating dark chocolate to reap the benefits of flavanols involves a tradeoff, Wright notes. The “purest” dark chocolates — in which at least 70% of the ingredients come from the cocoa bean – also have the highest concentrations of flavanols. What such chocolate gains in flavanols, it often loses in taste, however, as it contains less sugar than other varieties.
Wright adds that although high-cocoa dark chocolate is relatively low in saturated fat, those who partake of it should be aware of the calories they’re consuming. A 1-ounce serving of 70-80% dark chocolate contains 170 calories. This doesn’t mean those who eat dark chocolate shouldn’t enjoy it from time to time, but what’s most important is to not lose sight of the larger goal of eating healthy and exercising regularly, Wright advises.