Chocolate is one of the most popular comfort foods and really, that’s no surprise. Most of us love chocolate, so news that chocolate may have health benefits has been well received.
But, while the outcome may sound amazing, most of the benefits have actually been connected to dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
At the same time, there are debates about whether the benefits are worth the calories, especially for milk chocolate.
All of this leads to one alternative – chocolate in pill form. Specifically, we’re talking about a type of cocoa extract supplement. This is a pill that would offer you most of the potential benefits of chocolate, without all the sugar and the fat.
Certainly, that takes the fun away from chocolate. But, could it be worth it?
Realistically, the idea of a cocoa extract supplement does make a lot of sense. Research does show that chocolate offers significant health benefits, including decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke (1,2), helping to manage blood sugar and blood pressure (3,4), lowering inflammation (5) and benefits for cognition (6).
There are also many articles about what dark chocolate offers, including the site Paleo Hacks, which highlights 8 health benefits.
Most of the researched advantages are for dark chocolate, often in concentrated doses. So, you probably couldn’t get them simply by eating milk chocolate.
Now, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the benefits that chocolate offers (7).
Nevertheless, research suggests that many of these health outcomes are the result of cocoa and natural compounds that it contains (8). So, a pill would give people the ability to consume those compounds, without having to get the fat and the calories that come with chocolate.
More importantly, a cocoa extract supplement could offer the chance to consume larger quantities of the beneficial compounds, without having to eat a ton of chocolate to do so.
Research into a Cocoa Extract Supplement
Cocoa extract supplements might not be available on the commercial market but the underlying concept isn’t new. In fact, some of the research into the health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa has already focused on using supplements that contain higher-than-normal levels of plant-based compounds, including polyphenols.
Likewise, some research has also increased the amount of compounds found in cocoa or chocolate. One example was a study on the impact of cocoa flavanols on cognitive functions.
In that study, the authors provided participants with dark chocolate that contained higher levels of flavanols than normal (9). The actual outcomes of the study suggested that the flavanols did help to improve some cognitive functions. Other studies have also found similar outcomes, although not all pieces of research agree (10).
There are other similar studies out there that have used flavanol supplements in some form.
But, the reason that this has begun to hit the news recently is that a new study is being planned and designed. This study is called the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcome Study (or COSMOS) and aims to have around 18,000 participants (11).
Those participants will take cocoa extract supplement pills each day for 4 years (or a placebo). With any luck, the study will tell us a lot more about the practicality and the potential benefits of chocolate in a pill.
Clearly, this study is important for the idea of a chocolate pill. But, more than that, it is the largest study undertaken into cocoa flavanols and their health benefits. As such, it should tell us a lot more about what benefits chocolate actually offers and why.
The Downsides of Chocolate in a Pill
Of course, a cocoa extract supplement does have its downsides.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of chocolate (particularly milk chocolate) is that we feel good after eating it. In fact, simply the act of eating chocolate and its taste literally improve mood and simulate the feelings of falling in love (12).
This effect may be more psychological than chemical. In other words, chocolate may actually make us feel good simply because we expect it to. Any emotional benefits of chocolate aren’t likely to carry over to the pill version.
For that matter, a pill isn’t going to taste as good as chocolate either, although that one is pretty much a given.
The tradeoff could potentially be worth it, especially if the health benefits of a chocolate pill really are strong. But, we’ll have to wait for the outcomes of the research before we know what benefits truly are present.
It's also worth noting that a pill might not offer the same benefits that we find from dark chocolate or cocoa. As a general rule, plant-based products are complex and they contain a large number of nutrients and compounds. Because of this, we can't always pinpoint specifically where various health benefits come from.
Likewise, sometimes health benefits are connected to interactions between ingredients in a product. If that is the case, then you would expect a cocoa extract supplement to offer fewer benefits than actual dark chocolate does. But, again, we'll have to wait for the research before we truly know.
The Implications for Our Health
It’s likely that a cocoa extract supplement will pop up on the market sooner or later. After all, we already have supplements for just about everything.
In theory, a cocoa extract supplement could be a good way to get the healthy compounds from cocoa and dark chocolate in a higher quantity. But, more research needs to be done before we know whether or not the supplement would be a good idea.
For example, antioxidant supplements emerged around the same time as the focus on antioxidants for health. Now, there is little doubt that having a diet rich in antioxidants can offer major health benefits (and can even help with healthy aging in women), especially as such a diet would tend to be high in fruit, vegetables and other whole foods.
The same could be true for cocoa supplements.
So, for many of us, the answer may be to simply stick to dark chocolate, in moderation, along with a healthy diet. That way, you get the benefits from the chocolate, as well as the satisfaction that it brings as well.
You could also turn to cacao nibs instead. These are less processed and often contain fewer calories as a consequence.
The site Food Matters offers some insight into the amount of dark chocolate you should be eating for the best health outcomes.
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