Research has often focused on the potential benefits of dark chocolate for health – but a recent study suggests that milk chocolate may also have some benefits.
In fact, the authors suggested that you could have as much as 100 g (around 3.5 ounces) of chocolate a day and decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.
But, don’t get too excited.
The study might suggest that milk chocolate offers some health benefits, but that doesn’t make it a health food.
The Study Itself
This research focused on the association between chocolate intake and the risk of negative cardiovascular outcomes (primarily heart disease and stroke).
To do this, the study used data from a research analysis called EPIC-Norfolk. This analysis involved 20,951 participants (both male and female), who were followed for an average of 11.3 years.
Participants were broken up into groups based on their levels of chocolate consumption and the differences between these groups were statistically significant.
Among all participants in the study, the median level of chocolate consumption was 4.6 g per day, while the median level was 7.0 g when just those who ate chocolate were considered.
That calculates out to something like a square or two of Hershey’s chocolate a day, depending on the size of the squares.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but some of the participants did consume considerably more chocolate per day.
The authors found that higher levels of chocolate intake were significantly associated with a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of death from heart disease.
Specifically, up to 100 g of chocolate per day was associated with a decrease in both heart disease and stroke risk, as well as the risk of death from both conditions.
That equates to around 3.5 ounces of chocolate – and is about the amount of chocolate in two Hershey’s bars.
Within the study, the authors found that the group with the highest chocolate intake had an 11% lower risk of heart disease. In addition, their risk of dying from heart disease was decreased by 25%.
The authors also conducted a meta-analysis, comparing their results to similar studies and looking at the evidence for a relationship between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular events.
In five of those studies, there was a similar trend where chocolate consumption was associated with decreased heart disease risk. However, there was one study that found no difference in risk between people consuming chocolate and those that did not.
Likewise, the studies showed a lower risk of having a stroke and of dying from a stroke when chocolate was consumed.
The meta-analysis does strengthen the results that the study found, but it also highlights the low number of studies that have been conducted on milk chocolate.
Strengths and Limitations of the Study
This study had two main strengths.
The first was that it used a large sample population and that population included both males and females and a range of different ages.
Using that population helps to ensure that the results of the study are accurate and that they don’t just apply to one specific group of people.
The second strength was the meta-analysis.
This approach helped to put the findings of the study in context and show that there are other studies that have found similar outcomes.
However, there were also some major limitations of the study.
The first was the observational nature.
Basically, an observational study looks at what patterns are present in a group of people. Statistics are then used to try and see how strong the patterns are and whether there are statistically significant differences between groups.
With a large enough sample, all sorts of interesting patterns can emerge.
However, an observational study doesn’t test cause and effect – and that’s the big limitation.
So, the study can’t prove that chocolate causes a decrease in heart disease risk, it can only prove they are associated.
And the thing is… there are other factors that can also cause similar results.
For example, in this study, the people who ate more chocolate also tended to be younger. That isn’t too surprising, as many people do find that they ate more junk food when they were younger.
But, younger people also have a much lower risk of heart disease.
So, the relationships between age and heart disease, and between age and chocolate consumption, could have influenced the observed pattern.
Additionally, people tend to make decisions on junk food based (in part) on their health.
For example, most people at risk of heart disease tend to eat less fat, which includes eating less chocolate. Likewise, people who are healthier will often indulge a bit more.
This can also potentially contribute to the same pattern.
Realistically, more studies are needed before we really know what relationship is present between chocolate and heart disease risk.
Implications of the Study
The research for dark chocolate suggests that it is associated with a large number of health benefits, including a decreased risk of heart disease (1).
Now, these compounds are present in milk chocolate too, which might contribute to some observed effects. However, the proportions are not the same, which does suggest that dark chocolate may still be healthier than milk.
Additionally, some of the observed effects from this study could be the result of specific compounds in milk chocolate, like the fatty acids or the calcium.
However, there have been relatively few studies looking at the same effects in milk chocolate.
The outcomes of this study do suggest that eating milk chocolate may not be such a guilty treat after all.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that this was just an observational study and had some pretty significant limitations.
So, if you’re going to add more chocolate into your diet – do so in moderation.
After all… chocolate still isn’t a particularly healthy treat – regardless of what it does to heart disease risk.
For example, if you did choose to consume the 3.5 g the study found as the upper limit for health benefits – then you would be consuming close to 440 calories.
That’s quite a lot of calories, especially if you are trying to stay healthy.
In contrast, if you just ate a little bit of chocolate, you might be getting something like 50 calories from chocolate, which isn’t nearly as bad.