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What Are the Health Benefits of Coffee and Chocolate?

Learn about the health benefits of coffee and chocolate as well as tea. You don't have to feel guilty about your beverage!

Americans have a puritanical streak. This way of thinking suggests that if something hurts or tastes bad, it must be good for you. Conversely, if it tastes good, you might conclude it’s bad for you. That could be why many people believe that coffee, tea and especially chocolate are sinful treats. What if we told you about the health benefits of coffee, chocolate and tea?

Health Benefits of Coffee:

Science has been contradicting the puritan view for decades. Take coffee, for example. There is growing evidence that this popular morning beverage has health benefits. For one thing, coffee is rich in antioxidant compounds.

People who drink three to four cups of coffee daily are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (European Journal of Nutrition, June 2016).  In addition, coffee drinkers appear less prone to congestive heart failure, stroke and coronary heart disease (Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, May-June 2018).

A recent meta-analysis of 40 studies found that coffee drinkers were less likely to die prematurely, with the fewest early heart disease deaths among those sipping 2.5 cups a day (European Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 2019).  Those who consumed two cups daily had lower rates of cancer as well.

Alternative Morning Beverages:

Q. I generally need a cup or two of coffee to get going in the morning. Sometimes it raises my blood pressure. Is there any natural substitute that is less likely to have this effect?

A.  In general, we don’t worry about negative health benefits of coffee. The positive effects far outweigh the downsides for most people.

However, since you have noticed an impact on your blood pressure, you might consider an alternative. Cocoa has far less caffeine than coffee and can help lower blood pressure (Nutrients, May 13,  2023).  Some people combine cocoa with maca (Lepidium meyenii), a root from the Andes. This plant is reputed to fight fatigue and help stabilize blood pressure (Molecules, May 7, 2023).

Coffee to Promote Bowel Function:

One additional benefit of coffee: when people are hospitalized for abdominal surgery, they recover bowel function sooner and can be discharged earlier if they drink coffee (Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug, 2019).  In a study of 100 people, half got a cup of coffee with each meal and half got decaf tea instead. Nurses have recognized this advantage of coffee for quite some time.

Will Coffee Help Protect Against Dementia?

Q. I have read articles suggesting that coffee may have health benefits, especially against dementia. As a result, I try to drink four or five six-ounce cups a day. Does this seem sensible?

A. When coffee is roasted, compounds form that appear to have neuroprotective activity (Frontiers in Neuroscience, Oct. 12, 2018).  Coffee contains compounds such as caffeic acid, quercetin, chlorogenic acid and phenylindane that contribute to this effect.

Caffeine also may be protective. A review in the journal Nutrients (Feb. 6, 2021) concludes that “caffeine may exert some beneficial effects in AD” [Alzheimer’s disease].

Adding cocoa or chocolate may even boost its benefits. Italian researchers reported that older people consuming two or more cups of mocha coffee daily were less depressed and had better scores on cognitive function tests (Nutrients, Feb. 6, 2021).

They note:

“This is the first study focused on the association between a specific coffee preparation method (i.e., mocha) and cognitive impairment and late-life depression in a homogeneous population of non-demented elderly subjects with SIVD [Subcortical Ischemic Vascular Disease].”

We have not seen any controlled trials demonstrating that preventing dementia is among the health benefits of coffee. An observational study suggests that Italians who drink around 4 ounces of coffee daily (70 to 110 gm) are at lowest risk of early-onset dementia (Nutrients, Nov. 29, 2020).

Health Benefits of Tea:

What about tea? In countries like China and Japan, where the preferred hot beverage is green tea, people associate it with health and longevity. They have good reason to do so. A study that followed more than 100,000 Chinese adults for about seven years found that green tea was associated with lower mortality rates (European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Jan. 8, 2020). Those who consistently consumed at least three cups a week were 20 percent less likely to die of a stroke or heart attack during the study. An earlier study found a reduced risk of premature death from cancer as well as cardiovascular disease (European Journal of Epidemiology, Sep. 2016).

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Health Benefits of Chocolate:

The Puritans among us might be willing to grant that green tea could have health benefits. After all, who associates it with indulgence? But they probably raise their eyebrows at chocolate.

One reader expressed skepticism that chocolate could be healthy food:

“Some ingredients in cocoa may be good, but chocolate has a lot of sugar that would negate any benefit. I love chocolate too, but with all the massive obesity around us, do people need another excuse to stuff their faces with chocolate?”

Cocoa Compounds for Lower Blood Pressure:

A number of randomized controlled trials have confirmed that cocoa flavanols and other compounds in cocoa have significant health benefits. They lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb, 2017). Increased blood vessel flexibility seems to be due to the flavanols, especially epicatechins similar to those in tea (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec. 2018). On the other hand, compounds known as procyanidins appear responsible for lowering cholesterol.

Chocolate and the Brain:

Moreover, people who get high doses of cocoa flavanols daily seem to have better cognitive function (Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, online Jan. 13, 2020).  Cocoa flavanols are also known to have strong anti-inflammatory effects (Frontiers in Pharmacology, Dec. 12, 2013).

Downsides of Chocolate:

Q. I was disappointed to read that some chocolate bars have high amounts of heavy metals. My particular favorite was high in both lead and cadmium. Can you tell me why? Are there any chocolates that are safe to eat?

A. Consumer Reports published an analysis of some popular chocolate brands in its February 2023 issue. Unfortunately, as you note, many were contaminated with lead, others with cadmium and a few with both.

Cadmium comes from the tropical soils in which cacao trees grow. The trees get cadmium along with nutrients and it accumulates in cacao beans as they mature.

The source of lead contamination seems to be different. Freshly harvested cacao beans don’t have much lead, but as they dry, they accumulate dust. In some environments, the dust is full of lead. According to Consumer Reports, keeping harvested beans off the ground and away from roads and dust will cut down on the lead in chocolate bars.

Safer Chocolate Bars:

Consumer Reports identified five “safer” chocolate bars that came in under the maximum allowable dose level for these metals. They are Ghirardelli Intense Dark (both 72 and 86 percent), Taza Chocolate Deliciously Dark (70 percent), Mast Dark Chocolate (80 percent) and Valrhona Abinao (85 percent cacao).

How About a Supplement?

People who want the benefits of cocoa compounds without the sugar and fat found in chocolate candy may want to consider supplements instead. CocoaVia offers supplements with high-dose cocoa flavanols (500 or 750 mg). An analysis by ConsumerLab.com showed that these pills have minimal cadmium. (Disclosure: the company underwrites our syndicated public radio show.)

Clearly, you don’t have to suffer to get health benefits from your beverages. Enjoying a cup of joe in the morning, sipping tea in the afternoon or savoring a cup of cocoa can all boost your health. We also take CocoaVia capsules daily; while there’s no appreciable flavor, research suggests there’s plenty of benefit.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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