Chocolate, and cocoa in particular, has made health headlines for years as experts debate whether it is good or bad for you, and especially your heart. However, cocoa's potential effects on oral health have received less attention. There is no question that the negative effects of chocolate's sugar content on oral health have overshadowed any positive effects that chocolate's cocoa content may have. So let's have a look at those potential positive effects, and weigh them against the well-known risks that the sugar in chocolate presents.
Sugar, Chocolate and Cocoa
The primary cause of tooth decay is well-known. Bacteria in the mouth break down sugars into acids, which erode the surface of your teeth, causing cavities. So the question at hand is whether chocolate promotes or prevents any stage of this process from taking place. However, we first we need to distinguish between chocolate and the cocoa it often contains. There are three broad categories of chocolate that we are all familiar with: milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. As it turns out, only dark chocolate contains significant quantities of cocoa, which has been studied in relation to its effects on oral health. For this reason, we will limit our attention to dark chocolate.
Three Key Compounds
Although the percentage various greatly, all dark chocolate contains a significant percentage of cocoa. Of its many compounds, cocoa, in turn, contains flavonoids, polyphenols and tannins, all of which have been studied for their potentially positive effects on oral health. Although there is significant overlap between flavonoids and polyphenols, we'll treat them separately here for the sake of simplicity.
Research has indicated that the flavonoids found in tea and cocoa may slow the process of tooth decay. Flavonoids can also serve as antioxidants, which may in turn serve to promote healthy gums.
Cocoa contains polyphenols. These compounds, known for their many potential health benefits, may also have properties that fight tooth decay. In particular, polyphenols may limit the growth of oral bacteria, while preventing certain sugars from breaking down into the acid that eats away at tooth enamel.
There has been research indicating that the tannins found in cocoa may also help fight tooth decay, serving as anti-bacterial agents and reducing the cavity-creating acid we all want to avoid.
Cocoa vs Sugar
Despite containing three compounds that could potentially promote oral health, the dark chocolate that most of us buy at the store contains a significant dose of sugar (although generally slightly less than the more popular milk chocolate). The question is whether the benefits of dark chocolate outlined above sufficiently offset the risks of consuming the accompanying sugar, which promotes tooth decay. There is no clear answer to this question. However, the quantity of sugar in the dark chocolate you consume is a key variable you can control. If you are dedicated to gaining the potential benefits of cocoa, while reducing the risks associated with sugar, you may choose to consume only dark chocolate with the highest percentages of cocoa, and the least sugar content. Of course, you might take this process to its logical extreme and eat entirely unsweetened dark chocolate (if you can stomach the taste).
Researchers have been debating the health effects of cocoa for years. However, the debate over cocoa's specific effects on oral health is especially contentious. This is due to the well-known negative affects of the sugar that nearly always accompanies our intake of cocoa. However, when it comes to dark chocolate, there is a potential upside. Whether you focus on the potential positive contributions of flavonoids, polyphenols or tannins in the fight against tooth decay, the cocoa in dark chocolate may be worth considering in the overall recipe for oral health. However, in order to take full advantage of its potential benefits, it's important to watch the amount of sugar in the dark chocolate you consume. While unsweetened dark chocolate may have the most potential for promoting oral health, you may find the relatively bitter taste difficult to stomach. In the end, you may decide that it's best to experiment until you find just the right balance between personal taste and potential benefit.