your skin on chocolate

Just in time for Valentine's Day, I thought I'd share some food for thought. 

I don’t remember where I heard it first, but I once believed that eating chocolate caused breakouts. Then in college, I read in a health magazine that it was all a myth, that chocolate wasn’t linked to acne, and we could all go back to eating bonbons with abandon. At the time, I didn’t probe any further probably because I didn’t want to taint the good news. Since then, however, new studies have come out complicating the story.

THE BAD

While the belief that chocolate causes acne is widespread in the general population (1), there had been no conclusive study proving the relationship until recently. Studies performed in the 1960s and 70s showed no connection, perhaps because they were flawed in design (2). It wasn’t until 2011 and 2014 that studies showed a correlation between acne and chocolate, but the study sizes were small and not realistic in their methods (i.e. they studied the effects of binge eating chocolate rather than small, regular doses) (3). In 2016, a study was published linking the consumption of chocolate to an increase in acne in acne-prone males (4). In the study, twenty-five college-aged men were asked to consume about one ounce of 99% chocolate everyday for 4 weeks with consistent follow up. Results indicated a marked increase in acne, nearly double the amount from pre-study acne. While these findings are certainly notable, they don’t tell a generalizable truth. I haven’t been able to track down any recent studies on the effect of chocolate on acne-prone women (which were excluded from the 2016 study due to hormonal changes which could confound results) or non-acne-prone adults, and the 2016 suggests that there aren’t any.

SO DOES ALL CHOCOLATE CAUSE ACNE?

The above study is revelatory, but it doesn’t clarify what substance in chocolate actually causes acne. We know that not all chocolate is created equal. Between milk and dark—which have varying amounts of sugars, cocoa butter, cacao, and milk solids—is there one type of chocolate that’s better for our skin than another?

Studies have suggested that the consumption of nonfat and low-fat dairy correlates to increased acne, while full-fat does not (5). Given that dairy consumption remained the same for participants during the 2016 study, the study’s authors didn’t seem to think that the small amount of additional milk solids in chocolate was a contributor (6). Studies have found a link between high glycemic index foods, like sugar, and acne suggesting that sugar could be the culprit (7), but 99% chocolate contains less than 1 gram of sugar, suggesting that sugar wasn’t the culprit.

So let’s look at cocoa butter. It’s made of 33% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to increase acne when applied topically (8). But in this experiment, the oleic acid is consumed orally. Which still leaves me wondering, if chocolate causes acne, what in chocolate is the guilty guy? I think more research is needed here.

THE GOOD

The good of chocolate is just as complicated as the bad. Multiple studies have concluded that cocoa has antioxidant and photoprotective potential (ability to combat UV-damage) that can greatly improve skin health (9, 10). However, it’s a little tricky on how we can fully maximize that potential. Cocoa’s benefits lie in their flavanols, potent antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and pro-circulatory properties. One study even suggested that beyond their ability to repair UV damage, flavanols improve skin hydration and skin thickness, two qualities that deteriorate as we age (11). While studies have been able to differentiate between high flavanol cocoa and low flavanol content (with the lower flavanol content not being as beneficial) (12), we as normal consumers have no way of knowing how many flavanols are in the chocolate we buy at the store. The FDA doesn’t require that companies put it on their label, and we certainly can’t go test them all in a lab (13).

It would be easy to assume that the darker the chocolate, the more flavanols (because we’ve all been told darker is better) but that’s not always the case. The processing and manufacturing of chocolate varies across brands, altering the flavanols in various ways so that a 80% mass-market bar could actually contain less than a 72% single-origin bar (14). Additionally, cacao beans of different varieties and origins can vary in their flavanol profile, but to what extent is unknown (15).

So how do you try to get as many flavanols as possible? It’s difficult to know exactly, but the less processed, the better. The meat of the cocoa bean, the nib, can be ground to form cacao powder or it can be further heated to form cocoa liquor. This cocoa liquor is further distilled under high pressure to form cocoa powder and cocoa butter (16). Dutch cocoa (aka alkalized) is the mostly highly processed, undergoing a process which eliminates flavanols (17). While chocolate bars are more processed than unalkalized cocoa powder, they can still retain flavanols with dark chocolate usually having more than milk due to the higher percentage of cocoa (18).

SO WHAT'S A CHOCOLATE LOVER TO DO?

I don’t have a definitive answer because the science isn’t definitive. Like most things as they relate to our diet and skin, there’s no clear one size-fits-all approach. But there are a few takeaways:

  1. While eating chocolate has been linked to acne, cacao and cocoa powders have not. If you’re acne-prone, you can get your chocolate fix by adding these powders to a dairy-free smoothie or hot chocolate, chia pudding, or mousse. I say dairy-free because nonfat and lowfat dairy has been linked to acne, but again, full-fat has not.

  2. To maximize the skin-boosting potential of flavanols, aim for the less processed cocoa nib, cacao powder, or a darker chocolate bar.

  3. Run your own little experiment. Mimic the 2016 study by eating an ounce of your favorite chocolate bar every day for a month. Monitor your skin for acne, general feel and look, and keep a journal. If your skin condition worsens, maybe you’ll be motivated to cut back on your chocolate consumption. If it stays the same, maybe you’ll relish in the fact that you’re perhaps adding a little extra anti-aging boost to your skin.

Personally, I’m a chocolate lover and a little chocolate here and there—or maybe a lot on my birthday or date night—makes me happy. While the worst thing about my chocolate habit is that it could cause a minor acne flare-up, the best thing is that it could be giving my skin a protective boost. Find that balance that works for you!

AND JUST IN CASE YOU'RE IN THE MARKET FOR CHOCOLATE...

My fave cacao powders: Healthworks Organic Cacao Powder, Navitas Naturals Organic Cacao Powder

My fave quality chocolates: I’m partial to fair-trade and organic brands, but I’ve enjoyed Venchi, Dagoba, Santander, and Theo (all found here). Escazu, Videri, and Éclat are small-batch brands I really like, but I also enjoy Ghiradelli for a quick-fix.