Is chocolate good for you? An expert explains…

Person holding chocolate eggs in a basket
The darker the chocolate, the higher the flavonoid content, says Dr Shelly Coe. Photo: Polina Zimmerman/

As Easter approaches and chocolate eggs flood the shelves of supermarkets, Dr Shelly Coe, from the Oxford Centre for Nutrition and Health at Oxford Brookes University, asks if chocolate offers any health benefits?

Is chocolate good for us? 
As nutritionists we advise all things in moderation. But within cocoa the compounds that do have health benefits are flavonoids. Flavonoids are found in many foods, but especially in dark cocoa. They are one of the main compounds that may contribute to reducing fatigue and fatigability (the level of susceptibility to fatigue in an individual).

I've done quite a bit of research into cocoa, which has focused on the benefits of dark cocoa for fatigue and fatigability in people with multiple sclerosis and in people with Parkinson’s. So far the research has been feasibility trials, smaller studies. We need to do more research but we have found that cocoa has potential for reducing fatigue in both participant groups. 

Flavonoids have been found to have a variety of health benefits, they may help in assisting blood flow around the body, in addition to improving mood, brain performance, and fatigue perception. They also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids are a group of compounds called polyphenols, and are found in green tea, many fruits and vegetables, some grains and cereal products and also in red wine.
Much of the research to date has been in those with specific health conditions. More research into those who are not living with these conditions needs to be undertaken to demonstrate that dark chocolate in your diet, in moderation, could provide some health benefits. 

Which chocolate is best? 
The darker the better and the more cocoa solids the better. This means that the ‘darker’ the chocolate, the higher the flavonoid content and therefore the increased likelihood of benefits. White and milk chocolate mostly contain no flavonoids, and therefore it is important to consume the dark/ high cocoa solid chocolate, at least at a 70-85% cocoa solid content. 

In the work that we've done in the past we've actually used a dark cocoa drink. This was specifically because in the conditions that we researched, dehydration can sometimes be an issue. Therefore a drink is often a better vehicle for the cocoa. 

How much chocolate?
In terms of overall dose, the literature is conflicting, and therefore more research needs to be done. It’s difficult to quantify the amount of flavonoids someone consumes, not just from cocoa, but from other foods, partly because we don’t know how much is actually absorbed and used by the body. 

Some populations throughout the world will naturally consume more flavonoids in their diet, whereas others consume less. Again, with cocoa, the darker it is the better and because of the high content of flavonoids you don't need much to induce health benefits. 

What’s next in your research? 
We want to build on the work we’ve done in these smaller feasibility trials. We want to look at where we could go next with cocoa - as part of a whole diet approach. We’d look at how you incorporate cocoa into a healthy diet and possibly the use of dark cocoa alongside, for example, physical activity interventions. 

Will you be indulging in some chocolate eggs over Easter? 
It’s important to eat a healthy diet, but it is also important to enjoy the foods you really like, especially on occasions such as Easter. So yes, I will definitely be enjoying some chocolate eggs!