The People's Perspective on Medicine

What Are the Health Benefits of Coffee and Chocolate?

There are health benefits of coffee and chocolate as well as tea. You don't have to feel guilty about your beverage!
Coffee glass and the chocolate on a white background

Americans have a puritanical streak. This way of thinking suggests that if something hurts or tastes bad, it must be good for you. Conversely, things that taste good are often considered 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.

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. 

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).

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).

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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 (450 mg). (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 sometimes double up. When we add a packet of CocoaVia cocoa flavanols to coffee, we enjoy the health benefits of coffee and chocolate both. 

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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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Citations
  • Santos RM & Lima DR, "Coffee consumption, obesity and type 2 diabetes: A mini-review." European Journal of Nutrition, June 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s00394-016-1206-0
  • O'Keefe JH et al, "Coffee for cardioprotection and longevity." Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, May-June 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.pcad.2018.02.002
  • Kim Y et al, "Coffee consumption and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: A meta-analysis by potential modifiers." European Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 2019. DOI: 10.1007/s10654-019-00524-3
  • Hasler-Gehrer S et al, "Does Coffee intake reduce postoperative ileus after laparoscopic elective colorectal surgery? A prospective, randomized controlled study: The Coffee Study." Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Aug, 2019. DOI: 10.1097/DCR.0000000000001405
  • Wang X et al, "Tea consumption and the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: The China-PAR project." European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Jan. 8, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487319894685
  • Liu J et al, "Association of green tea consumption with mortality from all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer in a Chinese cohort of 165,000 adult men." European Journal of Epidemiology, Sep. 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s10654-016-0173-3
  • Sansone R et al, "Methylxanthines enhance the effects of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular function: randomized, double-masked controlled studies." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb, 2017. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.116.140046
  • Rodriguez-Mateos A et al, "Assessing the respective contributions of dietary flavanol monomers and procyanidins in mediating cardiovascular effects in humans: Randomized, controlled, double-masked intervention trial." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec. 2018. DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy229
  • Barrera-Reyes PK et al, "Effects of cocoa-derived polyphenols on cognitive function in humans. Systematic review and analysis of methodological aspects." Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, online Jan. 13, 2020. DOI: 10.1007/s11130-019-00779-x
  • Becker K et al, "Immunomodulatory properties of cacao extracts - potential consequences for medical applications." Frontiers in Pharmacology, Dec. 12, 2013. DOI: 10.3389/fphar.2013.00154
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Can coffee damage bone density? Nice to mention the benefits, what about the drawbacks?

In animal studies, coffee does not affect bone mineral density. The correlations in epidemiological studies in human populations are inconsistent. It is not at all clear that coffee reduces bone mineral density or leads to fractures.

Here’s a healthy chocolate treat. Adjust the proportions to suit your taste.

1/2 cup high quality (no added sugar) Concord grape juice (eg, Knudsen)
1 cup water
microwave for a minute or so
stir in 1/8 cup of Nestle cocoa powder

The sweetness of the grape juice works nicely with the tartness of the cocoa. Delicious! Also, the polyphenols/etc in the grape juice and in the cocoa complement each other well.

Most people equate coffee with caffeine, so if they feel no need for the caffeine boost, they do not drink coffee. What a misconception! Reportedly, coffee is good for health, but most likely it is not the caffeine, but one, or all, of the other 499 compounds present in coffee. Conclusion: Decaf may be as beneficial as the regular kind.

I think it is important to also note that there are studies that show if a woman has osteopenia or osteoporosis both caffeine and chocolate are very bad for her bones!! I found that out the hard way.

Chocolate has been identified as a problem based on epidemiology: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18175753
However, the story is not straightforward: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31029926
Tea seems to be associated with stronger bones, also based on epidemiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921409

I have been wondering if Hershey’s special dark cocoa, which is 100% Dutched cocoa (whatever that is), would have the same affect as the cocoa via supplement. There is nothing on the label that mentions cocoa flavanols. I’ve been adding a teaspoon to my morning coffee for about a year, and I love it. It is sugar-free. Is this a good thing to do?

Generally, Dutch processed cocoa is lower in flavanols. ConsumerLab.com has analyzed chocolate and cocoa. Hershey’s special dark has more cadmium than you might want to consume on a regular basis. Here’s the ink: https://www.consumerlab.com/reviews/Cocoa_Powders_and_Chocolates_Sources_of_Flavanols/cocoa-flavanols/

Make sure that your chocolate has NOT been processed using alkali (AKA the “Dutch process).” Check the label. That’s because processing with alkali reduces beneficial flavonols by 60%.

Is unsweetened baking chocolate the healthy type?

Anything over 70% cocoa is probably pretty good, but flavanol content does vary between brands.

Cocoa via is expensive. Is cocoa powder at a higher quantity as good ?

What about decaf coffee? Same benefits?

This is all good news. Does the research show similar benefits for decaf coffee as regular?

Lily’s chocolate bars provide the goodness of cocoa without any processed sugar. What a find!

I’d like to share my little chocolate treat with you. I get unsweetened organic chocolate bars, mix a little organic peanut butter with stevia to sweetened it & then spread it on the bar. It tastes very much like a Reese’s peanut butter cup without all the sugar!

I am happy to be reading this article as a person with congenital heart defects! Recently I’ve had to switch to half-decaf though. Do you think there are still benefits to drinking decaf coffee?

One study shows decaf coffee improves insulin sensitivity. Here’s a link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29514721

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