Is the FDA Suggesting Chocolate Could Be Healthy?

chocolate bar in wrapper with bite taken out

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Key Takeaways

  • A global chocolate manufacturer petitioned the FDA to review the research regarding the health benefits of flavanols, which are compounds found in chocolate.
  • While research is emerging, early data suggests flavanols may be associated with benefits ranging from improved cardiovascular health to cancer prevention.
  • The FDA said it won’t prevent manufacturers from making qualified health claims about flavanols.

On February 3, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it won’t try to stop manufacturers from making certain claims about the health benefits of cocoa flavanols in its products.

The statement was in response to a petition letter sent by global chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut, who asked the FDA to review the research on flavanols and health and reconsider allowing product labels to note those benefits for consumers.

Here’s what you need to know about the FDA’s new stance, including what types of products can make feature claims about the potential health benefits of flavanols.

What Are Flavanols and Why Are They In Chocolate?

Flavonoids or flavanols are compounds called phytonutrients that naturally occur in a lot of different foods—everything from veggies and grains to tea, red wine, and chocolate.

Researchers have long been interested in finding out whether these compounds have health benefits. Some studies suggest that flavanols may:

  • Fight inflammation and chronic pain through its antioxidant effects
  • Help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol to support cardiovascular health
  • Reduce the risk of diabetes by regulating carbohydrate digestion and function of cells involved in blood sugar levels
  • Prevent cancer by fixing DNA, keeping carcinogens at bay, and keeping cells in check
  • Work against viral infections by keeping viruses from attaching to and getting into the body’s cells
  • Boost brain health and cognitive function by protecting brain cells

While flavanol research looks promising, it’s still in early days in terms of looking at the health effects in humans. That said, since there’s interest from consumers about the possible benefits—after all, it’s good news that our vices may be healthy—researchers have an incentive to keep studying flavanols to see if the health claims are backed by evidence.

Qualified Health Claims May Be Allowed

The FDA regulates product labeling by reviewing health claims to make sure that they are at least qualified, if not authorized, based on the available research evidence.

An authorized health claim is backed up by a lot of high-quality research and is agreed upon by experts. A qualified health claim has some evidence behind it, just not quite at that level. When manufacturers put qualified health claims on their labels, they also have to include a disclaimer to make the limitations clear to consumers.

The health claims that manufacturers might want to make about cocoa flavanols likely fall into this qualified health claim space: There is some research, but it’s still early.

The Cheerios Lesson

If the FDA finds out that a manufacturer is making claims about its product that are not backed by research or are worded in a way that could confuse the people who buy it, they’ll crack down on the company.

One well-known example of the process happened in 2009 when the FDA sent a warning letter to General Mills. For years, the company marketed the popular breakfast cereal Cheerios as being a “heart-healthy” food. The company went so far as to put right on the box that if you eat Cheerios, “you can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks.”

General Mills also claimed that it had done a clinical trial proving that Cheerios could lower cholesterol.

Despite touting research evidence, the FDA took issue with General Mills’ claim because if eating a bowl of Cheerios every day really could lower cholesterol levels, then the cereal would have to qualify as a drug, not a food.

Since Cheerios is not a medication, the FDA told General Mills it would need to change the wording on the label so it would not make consumers think that eating the cereal would lower their cholesterol.

We Probably Won't Start Seeing Claims About Flavanols on Chocolate

You probably won’t be seeing health claims about flavanols on a candy bar any time soon. While the FDA may allow some health claims to be made, the organization is being very clear about the wording it will accept on labels, as well as what products can have a health claim on them.

Specifically, the FDA stated that a qualified health claim “only applies specifically to cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder and foods that contain high flavanol cocoa powder.”

That means that regular “cocoa powder, foods containing regular cocoa powder, or other food products made from cacao beans, such as chocolate” cannot be labeled with a qualified health claim about flavanols.

In terms of how the claims will need to be worded, here’s what the FDA proposed as acceptable:

  • “Cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, although the FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.”
  • “Cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.”
  • “Very limited scientific evidence suggests that consuming cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder, which contains at least 4% of naturally conserved cocoa flavanols, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
  • “Very limited scientific evidence suggests that consuming cocoa flavanols in high flavanol cocoa powder, which contains at least 4% of naturally conserved cocoa flavanols, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. This product contains at least 4% of naturally conserved cocoa flavanols. See nutrition information for _____ and other nutrients.”

While the approved wording aligns with the FDA’s goal of protecting consumers, it doesn’t make for a catchy label—so the development might be bittersweet for cocoa manufacturers.

What This Means For You

Chocolate is not a health item. But the FDA won’t prevent manufacturers from calling out the very limited data highlighting some of the health benefits linked to flavanols, which are found in chocolate.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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