Is Chocolate Really Good For Your Heart? The FDA Weighs In

squares of chocolate on a yellow background


It’s not just a guilty pleasure.

Even though chocolate has been around for centuries, its impact on our health remains a mystery. Some of the earliest civilizations, including the Aztecs, drank it as a form of medicine. In more recent years, research has suggested that certain types might even be good for your heart. Now, the Food & Drug Administration has finally waded into the debate.

First, let’s back up to 2018, when European chocolate maker Barry Callebaut petitioned the agency to allow it to use health claims on some of its products. The FDA has now responded, saying some labels may be used on products made with high-flavanol cocoa, which is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. But, despite an exhaustive review of studies, the agency stopped short of giving a definitive answer, citing inconclusive scientific evidence.

“Daily consumption of at least 200mg of cocoa flavanols per serving may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” the agency wrote in its response. “The FDA has determined that the evidence is supportive, but not conclusive, for this claim.”

Still, the company behind the petition is calling the FDA’s move a “major milestone” for confectionery makers around the world, citing cocoa could be blended or added to a range of health products, including in sports and protein drinks. 

But where does this decision leave chocoholics? We explore some of the health benefits of chocolate, and what the FDA’s move means for us.

Does chocolate support heart health?

Americans love their chocolate — every year we spend $22 billion on chocolate, thanks in part to holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween. This naturally begs the question: Does chocolate offer any nutritional benefits?

Well, the not-so-simple answer is not all chocolate is created equal, at least from a health standpoint. Dark chocolate is known for being rich in a number of powerful minerals, including iron, magnesium, and zinc. Compared to white or milk chocolate, it also has a high concentration of some powerful antioxidants known as flavanols, which may aid the cardiovascular system in lowering blood pressure. But how do these work exactly? They basically promote the production of more nitric oxide, a molecule that causes our blood vessels to open up, which promotes blood flow.

The research even backs these health benefits up: Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that a 600-mg daily supplement of cocoa flavanols can reduce some cardiovascular deaths like heart disease by 27 percent. But there wasn’t a major decrease in the number of heart attacks or strokes, and those involved in the study say more research is needed.

What does the FDA’s ruling mean?

If you were hoping this news was your ticket to go out and eat more chocolate, then you might be disappointed. In order for chocolate and candy makers to make a health claim, cocoa products should have at least 4 percent of naturally conserved cocoa flavanols — which is more bitter than your average Hershey’s bar.

Chocolate, no matter the type, also contains some not-so-healthy ingredients. For instance, a standard bar of dark chocolate with 70 percent to 85 percent cacao contains about 600 calories and 24 grams of sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database. That’s the maximum amount of added sugar the American Heart Association suggests adult women have per day. Milk chocolate contains roughly the same number of calories but nearly twice the sugar. 

Is there a dark side to dark chocolate?

The short answer is, it might be worth a closer look. Last year, Consumer Reports conducted its own investigation and found that 23 of the 28 dark chocolate bars from various brands contained some toxic heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Though the report wasn’t academically reviewed, its findings lined up with previous FDA research, which reported that dark chocolate contains 7.6 micrograms of cadmium and 0.8 micrograms of lead per one-ounce serving.

But how much of these metals would be considered toxic? It depends. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the minimal risk level for daily cadmium intake is about six micrograms for a 130-pound person. To put this into perspective, the average American already consumes about five micrograms of cadmium per day from other food sources, according to a study published by the scientific journal MDPI. So some dark chocolate might just be enough to put someone over the edge of their daily intake.

On the other hand, there isn’t any established safe level for lead in the U.S., though there are certain limits on how much can be in candy. But the amount found in dark chocolate is usually well below the requirement.

The bottom line is just like any tasty treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. “If you enjoy chocolate, the important thing to do is choose the type you enjoy the most and eat it in moderation because you like it, not because you think it is good for you,” Tufts University professor Alice Lichtenstein told The American Heart Association.