By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Chocolate is one of the most beloved sweet treats not just in the US, but around the world. The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that across the planet, 3 million tons of cocoa beans are consumed every year.
Not only is chocolate delicious, but research shows it actually has some potential health benefits for your brain and heart, in particular.
Chocolate Nutrition: Dark, White, and Everything In Between
Whether chocolate offers health benefits depends on how it’s made. Specifically, the healthiest chocolates contain the most cocoa. Like other superfoods, cocoa is a special gift from Nature.
You could say that chocolate grows on trees…to be accurate, cacao in its unprocessed form does – as seeds inside fruits of the Theobroma Cacao tree.
To make chocolate, cocoa seeds (or beans) are extracted from the cacao tree fruit, then fermented, dried, and then roasted to removes the hulls. What remains is the “nib,” which gets ground down and processed to produce the chocolate we’re familiar with.
During processing, different types of chocolate are created: dark, milk, and white. Dark chocolate contains between 50–90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar. Milk chocolate contains 10–50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, plus milk in some form. (Depending on the quality or variety of the chocolate, the final product may include other ingredients as well.) White chocolate is simply made of cocoa butter, milk, and sugar—no cocoa solids.
The health benefits associated with chocolate come from the cocoa solids—the material left behind after all of the butter is extracted from cocoa beans. These cocoa solids are rich in antioxidants, minerals, and fiber. According to SELFNutritionData, a 100-gram dark chocolate bar containing 75–85% cocoa solids includes:
- Magnesium (57% of RDA)
- Iron (66% of RDA)
- Copper (88% of RDA)
- Manganese (97% of RDA)
- Phosphorus (31% of RDA)
- Zinc (22% of RDA)
- Potassium (20% of RDA)
- Selenium (10% of RDA)
- Fiber (11 grams)
Unfortunately, milk and white chocolate do not deliver any of the same benefits as dark chocolate. Milk chocolate contains at least 12% milk and a much higher sugar content than its dark counterpart.
And forget white chocolate, which doesn’t contain any cocoa solids at all—only the vegetable fat part called “cocoa butter.” As a result, it has no antioxidants and no nutritional value whatsoever.
So, if you want to truly take advantage of the health benefits of chocolate, stick to dark. Of all the candy and sweets in the world, dark chocolate is the only one I’m comfortable recommending. And even then, you should eat it in small amounts—no more than a square or few at a time. Dark chocolate is a pretty calorie-dense food that can easily lead to weight gain (and thus inflammation, and other health problems) if you repeatedly overindulge.
That said, eaten in moderation, dark chocolate offers some exciting health benefits…
Dark Chocolate Benefit #1: Healthier Heart Function
Dark chocolate has antioxidant properties, which means it helps fight free-radical damage and inflammation—two crucial factors in the development and progression of heart disease and other progressive, long-term conditions. Specifically, these powers come from flavonoids in the cocoa solids. Flavonoids are one of the antioxidants that also lend anti-inflammatory power to wine, olive oil, herbs and spices, and other plant foods.
In addition to fighting free radicals, the flavonoids in cocoa solids aid in the production of nitric oxide in the endothelium. This helps relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, reduce clotting risk, lower blood pressure, and improve arterial function. So not only will you be at lower risk for a stroke or heart attack, but you’ll have better nutrient circulation throughout your body.
In a 2017 meta-analysis that examined the results of 14 studies, researchers concluded, “chocolate intake is associated with decreased risks of [coronary heart disease] stroke, and diabetes. Consuming chocolate in moderation (≤6 servings/week) may be optimal for preventing these disorders.”
Speaking of diabetes…
Dark Chocolate Benefit #2: Better Blood Sugar Control
It may seem counterintuitive that chocolate can have a positive effect on blood sugar, but research does indicate that dark chocolate may improve glucose metabolism.
According to 2017 study, “cocoa may be useful in slowing the progression to type 2 diabetes and ameliorating insulin resistance in metabolic syndrome.”
Another study showed that people who rarely or never ate dark chocolate had almost twice the risk of developing diabetes five years later, compared to those who enjoyed it at least once a week.
Dark Chocolate Benefit #3: Improved Brain and Mental Function
Better blood flow doesn’t just benefit the heart. It helps the brain, too. Flavonoid activity increases blood flow and promotes the growth of neurons in the part of the brain associated memory. Even better, dark chocolate has been shown to improve memory in both older and younger adults.
In one study, elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment drank a high-flavonol cocoa beverage for eight weeks. Their performance on cognitive tests improved significantly, compared to those who consumed a low-flavonol drink.
Dark chocolate can also help you feel better when the pressure’s on. At least one study shows that it does this by reducing the amount of cortisol your body produces when you’re under stress. Dark chocolate also contains a chemical called phenylethylamine, which is the feel-good neurotransmitter that creates the same euphoric feeling we get when we fall in love. It’s no wonder we all feel happier after a taste!
Dark Chocolate Benefit #4: Enhanced Immunity?
This is an area that requires a lot more research, but there’s some evidence that suggests the compounds in cocoa solids may be able to help keep your immune system better balanced. This means you may get a boost against bugs like colds and flu, but it also means that cocoa may have the potential to help modulate allergies and autoimmune problems like arthritis.
Dark Chocolate Benefit #5: Possible Protection from Cancer
This is another area where research is preliminary. But cocoa polyphenols have been shown potentially to interfere with the development and progression of cancer, and flavonols influence certain biological pathways that inhibit inflammation and metastatis, and lead to apoptosis (death of cancer cells).
How to Choose the Best Dark Chocolate
For the best quality and health benefits of dark chocolate, look for a brand made from organic cocoa beans, and go for the highest percentage of cocoa solids that you can handle. The higher the amount, the more bitter the chocolate tastes, so be prepared if you decide to go big.
I should also offer this one caveat: If you are susceptible to migraines, sensitive to caffeine, or at risk of developing kidney stones, you may want to steer clear, because dark chocolate can aggravate all of those conditions.
Make Your Own Dark Chocolate
If you love cooking as much as I do, another option is making your own dark chocolate. Just mix some dark cocoa powder with a little raw honey, coconut oil, and vanilla extract (get the recipe with the specific measurements here), and voila!
There you have it—you don’t have to give up chocolate to eat a healthy diet, after all. In fact, dark chocolate is a healthy treat when eaten in moderation. So go ahead…indulge just a little and reap the spectacular benefits of dark chocolate!
References and resources:
- Academy of Chocolate. The popularity of chocolate through the years.
- Camps-Bossacoma M, et al. Cocoa diet and antibody immune response in preclinical studies. Front Nutr. 2017;4:28.
- Crichton G, et al. Habitual chocolate intake and type 2 diabetes mellitus in the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study: (1975-2010): prospective observations. 2017 Jan 1;108:263-9.
- Desideri G, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study. 2012 Sep;60(3):794-801.
- Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Dark Chocolate.
- Hooper L, et al. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;95(3):740-51.
- Martin MA, et al. Potential for preventive effects of cocoa and cocoa polyphenols in cancer. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Jun;56:336-51.
- Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):716-27.
- Nurk E, et al. Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):120-7.
- Pérez-Cano FJ, et al. The effects of cocoa on the immune system. Front Pharmacol. 2013;4:71.
- Self Nutrition Data. Candies, chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids nutrition facts & calories. Accessed October 5, 2017.
- Shah, SR. Use of dark chocolate for diabetic patients: a review of the literature and current evidence. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2017 Oct;7(4):218-21.
- Steinberg FM, Bearden MM, and Keen CL. Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Feb;103(2):215-23.
- USDA Agricultural Research Service FoodData Central. Dark Chocolate. Fdc.nal.usda.gov, last accessed Dec. 14, 2020.
- Wirtz PH. Dark chocolate intake buffers stress reactivity in humans. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jun 3;63(21):2297-9.
- Yuan S, et al. Chocolate consumption and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: A meta-analysis of prospective studies. 2017 Jul;9(7):688.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.
Top photo credit: jirkaejc @ 123rf.com