Chocolate often gets a bad reputation for how it treats your waistline and your teeth, but a new Italian study found that a daily serving of dark chocolate enriched with extra virgin olive oil was good for participants' heart health, and lowered their risk for cardiovascular problems down the road. Before you get too excited, researchers suspect it was the olive oil more than the chocolate that had the positive effect on their hearts.
The benefits from olive oil are derived from a natural compound called polyphenols. These exist in all plants, including apples, the other food included in this study, but results suggest their properties may be strongest when eaten in olive oil-enriched chocolate.
“We found that small daily portions of dark chocolate with added natural polyphenols from extra virgin olive oil was associated with an improved cardiovascular risk profile,” explained study lead author Dr. Rossella Di Stefano in a recent statement. “Our study suggests that extra virgin olive oil might be a good food additive to help preserve our 'repairing cells', the (endothelial progenitor cells)." These cells are critical for vascular repair, the statement noted.
For the study, researchers from the University of Pisa, Italy, had 26 volunteers, 14 men and 12 women, eat chocolate that was randomly enriched with either olive oil or red apples. Both olive oil and red apples are known for their heart health properties and abilities to reduce the progression of atherosclerosis —a condition characterized by buildup of plaque in the arteries.
However, results revealed that a daily serving of chocolate enriched with olive oil was associated with a more improved cardiovascular risk profile than a daily serving of red apples.
There are a few limitations to the study, including its small sample size and that it was conducted over just 28 days. The results also do not show a direct correlation between eating olive oil in chocolate and better heart health, just an improved risk profile, meaning people who ate the olive oil chocolate showed fewer signs of progression of atherosclerosis, as measured by factors such as blood pressure and levels of circulating endothelial progenitor cells.
Those who ate chocolate enriched with extra virgin olive oil also had a higher level of high-density lipoprotein, also known as “good cholesterol,” and decreased blood pressure when compared to the pre-study baseline. Individuals who had the apple-enriched chocolate did not experience any significant health changes.
What Does This Mean?
Does this mean that we should all go out and buy a lifetime supply of olive oil-enriched chocolate? Probably not. Rather, the study adds to a growing body of research that supports the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is made from pressed olives, and is full of monounsaturated fat, also known as the “healthiest” type of fat. This type of fat is more often found in plants, such as avocados and nuts, and works to lower cholesterol, which in turn reduces overall risk of heart attack and stroke, Medlineplus reported. This could also help to explain the chocolate’s effect on volunteers' heart health.
However, at at about $20 dollars for 200 grams, and sold at only select retailers, there are likely easier and cheaper ways to improve heart health, though we can’t deny this is probably the most delicious.