Chocolate originated in Central America and was popularised in Europe by the Spanish after the conquest of the Aztec civilisation. Originally chocolate was drunk as a type of beverage, but when it came to Europe the chocolate we now know as a solid was created. Since its inception as a drink by ancient civilisations, the health effects of the cocoa bean have been understood. Recent evidence suggests that those benefits may include an anti-cancer effect.
Chocolate therefore has potential health benefits. The reason for this is likely the high concentration of polyphenols in the cocoa bean. The polyphenols in chocolate are very similar to those in green tea,. However, whereas the polyphenols in green tea are catechins, in chocolate they are polymer, made up of catechin units. Such polyphenols are called oligomeric proanthocyanidins, and they are also found in some berries, notably cranberries.
Dark chocolate contains high amounts of cocoa. In some dark chocolate this can account for up to 80 % of the ingredients. This is important because it is the cocoa that contain the polyphenols and therefore the higher the cocoa content within the chocolate the more protective the chocolate may be. Milk chocolate replaces some of the cocoa with milk solids, and this dilutes the benefits of the chocolate considerably.
How Is Chocolate Protective Of Cancer?
It is not fully understood how polyphenols protect from cancer but it may relate to their ability to inhibit angiogenesis. Polyphenols may inhibit the release of growth factors required for the development of blood vessels by tumours (angiogenesis), and thus starve the tumours of nutrients. Alternatively, because polyphenols are antioxidants, they may prevent the initiation of cancer by inhibition of free radical damage to DNA.
Dark chocolate appears to protect animals from cancer, particularly of the lung. However, milk chocolate is different. Milk chocolate contains high concentrations of sugar, and much lower levels of cocoa. Therefore not only are the benefits of the cocoa diluted, the presence of sugar may actually lead to health problems, particularly weight gain, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Milk chocolate is therefore likely not protective of cancer.