On a remote island off the coast of Panama lives a tribe known as the Kuna Indians. By most standards, the Kuna live a fairly typical, unassuming life… except for a couple of notable distinctions.
First, the Kona have six times fewer incidence of heart attack and 17 times fewer strokes than Americans. And even their senior citizens have the blood pressure of a healthy 20-year-old.
The Kona have another distinction: They eat an awful lot of chocolate.
Turns out, the association between chocolate and heart health is no myth from some faraway land. Researchers from Jordan have found that, indeed, there is a solid connection between chocolate consumption and blood pressure levels.
In fact, they found that the more you eat, the lower your pressure.
Chocolate for the Heart and Soul
The study was pretty straightforward. Researchers investigated more than 14,300 men and women over the age of 18, 75 percent of whom were between the ages of 18 and 39. All participants had normal blood pressure levels and no history of cardiovascular disease.
They were asked to classify their weekly dark chocolate consumption over the past six months with one of three categories:
- Mild (one or two bars a week)
- Moderate (three to four bars a week)
- High (more than four bars a week)
Participants also had their blood pressure and heart rate measured at three separate times, at 10 to 15 minute intervals, taken in both the sitting and resting positions. The mean value of the three tests was used. Researchers also used the three measurements to determine an arterial blood pressure value for each participant.
They found that the more dark chocolate a person consumed, the lower their systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number). Specifically, the average systolic pressure for mild intake was 125.64 compared to 119.29 for high intake. (Less than 120 is considered normal, while 120–139 is considered prehypertension.)
Diastolic numbers (the lower one) showed a similar effect. Mild consumers had an average of 79.92, while high consumers boasted 76.74. (Less than 80 is considered normal, while 80–89 is considered prehypertension.)
Arterial pressure also mimicked these findings. Mild chocolate eaters had an average arterial pressure of 95.23, while true aficionados enjoyed averages levels of 91.11.
Only heart rate was unaffected, with less than a point separating mild consumers and high consumers (77.32 versus 76.67).
Researchers concluded that this study “demonstrates a significant beneficial effect of dark chocolate intake on blood pressure in healthy individuals.”
But what about those who are already hypertensive or have elevated blood pressure levels?
Release the Pressure With Chocolate
According to a 2010 meta-analysis from Australia, dark chocolate provides the same blood pressure-lowering benefits to people with high blood pressure.
Researchers reviewed 15 different studies that all examined the effects of dark chocolate on blood pressure. They included randomized, controlled studies conducted between 1995 and 2009 that lasted at least two weeks.
Nine of the studies compared chocolate containing 50 percent to 70 percent cocoa with either white chocolate or other non-cocoa products. Six of the studies compared high versus low cocoa containing products.
They found that, on average, dark chocolate significantly reduced blood pressure in people with hypertension (140/90 mmHg or higher) and high blood pressure (over 120/80 mmHg but below 140/90 mmHg). In fact, systolic pressure was an average of 5 points lower, while diastolic was 2.7 points lower.
Researchers concluded, “Dark chocolate is superior to placebo in reducing systolic hypertension or diastolic prehypertension.”
Given its clear cardiovascular benefits, it’s time we gave chocolate its due. But, before you go too crazy, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, chocolate comes with a bit of baggage, namely calories, fat and sugar. Second, note that all of the studies focus on dark chocolate.
To offset the dangers and reap all the benefits, your best bet is to use unsweetened cocoa powder.
There are lots of ways to use cocoa powder: You can add it to a smoothie, stir it into yogurt, or even add to oatmeal.
If you want to be really decadent, mix up a batch of homemade truffles! Put raw coconut oil in a double boiler. Heat the water, melt the oil, then take it off the stove. Mix in raw cocoa powder, along with almond butter, coconut flakes and cinnamon.
One of the nice things about this recipe is that you can play with the measurements and proportions. Simply add and stir until the mixture is nice and creamy. Then refrigerate the mixture until cool and roll into truffle-like balls and freeze them.
Of course, there’s also the chocolate bar route. Here’s where you need to be a bit careful. Choose a bar with at least 70 percent cocoa or more. And aim for single-digit sugar. That means less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
 Al-Safi, SA et al. Dark chocolate and blood pressure: a novel study from Jordan. Curr Drug Deliv. 2011 Jun 22.l [Epub ahead of print.]
 Ried, K et al. Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis. BMC Med. 2010 Jun 28;8:39.