Theobroma Cacao Flower

No, Chocolate Is Not Really Medicine

It seems obvious. If food is medicine, shouldn’t we be confident that chocolate is medicine? Certainly, Uma Naidoo is happy to sell you on this idea. She is a nutritional psychiatrist and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and More.”

She is not alone. Davide Grassi, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of L’Aquila, tells the Washington Post that flavonoids in cocoa have health benefits:

“Flavonoids are good for our blood vessels and overall health and may help reduce the risk of heart problems and other chronic diseases.”

All of this reads like ad copy for medicinal chocolate. There’s even room for branding based on the admonition that the quality of the chocolate is very important. It must be good and dark.

But Actual Medical Benefits?

Ad copy and rationalization serves a purpose – to ring up sales. But all this rationalization does not clearly promote better health outcomes. Not unless we count the financial health of those who are selling this idea. They can even use an approved FDA health claim for selling the health benefits of the flavanols in cocoa:

“Cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, although FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.”

Objectively, this is a pretty tepid claim. It comes from studies of flavanol extracts, not chocolate itself. But for those who want to believe chocolate is medicine (like the chocolate maker who petitioned FDA for it) it’s good enough.

We will note, however, that there are plenty of real medicines that have compelling (not limited) evidence for preventing heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. Honestly, chocolate doesn’t meet that bar.

The Pleasure of Chocolate

It makes no difference to us that chocolate is a poor substitute for medicine. It is a good source of small pleasures. We agree with the assessment of Barry Rimm, a nutrition professor at Harvard:

“It would be a shame to turn chocolate into medicine when there are other acute pleasures that occur from its consumption, whether it triggers great memories or just reminds someone of a connection.”

So if you want to rationalize chocolate as if it were medicine, think of it as a source of pleasure that contributes to good mental health. Enjoy it with your special Valentine.

Click here and here for further perspective. For the COSMOS study of cardiovascular outcomes with flavanols extracted from cocoa, click here.

Theobroma Cacao Flower, photograph by H. Zell, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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February 13, 2024

3 Responses to “No, Chocolate Is Not Really Medicine”

  1. February 14, 2024 at 7:43 am, Susan March said:

    Boy, everything old is new again. These kinds of functional health claims for chocolate go way back, no? Here’s an article from the NY Times – 2009

    • February 14, 2024 at 9:01 am, Ted said:

      Human capacity for rationalization is eternal and still astounding.

  2. February 14, 2024 at 9:37 pm, Amy Glynn Klotz said:

    Food is food, medicine treats diseases/conditions; certain diets (medical nutrition therapy) can help treat conditions too. But food is not medicine; it’s still just food. Thank your on point perspective.
    Amy Klotz, MS, RD