1. Not all chocolates are created equal
Most chocolate falls into one of three categories: milk chocolate, dark chocolate or white chocolate. Chocolate’s darkness is determined by the proportion of cocoa solids made from cocoa beans, mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.
Milk chocolate, the most popular type, typically contains about ten percent cocoa liquor – the paste made from ground, roasted, shelled, and fermented cocoa beans that contains both non-fat cocoa solids and cocoa butter – compared with a minimum of 35 percent found in dark chocolate. You can tell how much cocoa liquor is in a dark chocolate bar by looking for the “percent cacao” figure on the label. Cacao is the raw form of chocolate, while cocoa is the heated version of cacao.
White chocolate, however, contains only cocoa butter – no cocoa solids – combined with sugar and other ingredients. And for many people, it’s not really considered a chocolate at all.
2. Health benefits of chocolate
Research continues to point to dark chocolate as having many health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, preventing blood clots, improving memory, lowering cholesterol and even preventing some types of cancer.
Dark chocolate contains 50%–90% cocoa solids, which are rich in plant chemicals called flavanols. These flavanols support the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow. They also increase insulin sensitivity, which may eventually reduce the risk of diabetes. The National Foundation for Cancer Research found that flavanols may reduce the risk of skin cancer and improve overall skin health.
Seven distinct benefits of dark chocolate:
a. Very Nutritious
If you buy quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, then it’s quite nutritious. It contains a decent amount of soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals.
A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70–85% cocoa contains
- 11 grams of fiber
- 66% of the DV for iron
- 57% of the DV for magnesium
- 196% of the DV for copper
- 85% of the DV for manganese
In addition, it has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium. Of course, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) is a fairly large amount and not something you should be consuming daily. These nutrients also come with 600 calories and moderate amounts of sugar. For this reason, dark chocolate is best consumed in moderation.
The fatty acid profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is also good. The fats consist mostly of oleic acid (a heart-healthy fat also found in olive oil), stearic acid, and palmitic acid. The stearic acid has a neutral effect on body cholesterol. Palmitic acid can raise cholesterol levels, but it only makes up one-third of the total fat calories. Dark chocolate also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, but it’s unlikely to keep you awake at night, as the amount of caffeine is very small compared with coffee.
b. Powerful source of anti-oxidants
Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins, among others. According to research, the polyphenols in dark chocolate may help lower some forms of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol when combined with other foods like almonds and cocoa. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries
c. May improve blood flow and lower blood pressure
The flavanoids in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce nitric oxide (NO). One of the functions of NO is to send signals to the arteries to relax, which lowers the resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure. Many controlled studies show that cocoa and dark chocolate can improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, though the effects are usually mild. However, one study in people with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure showed no effect. It’s possible that people who are already receiving treatment for high blood pressure may not get any additional benefit from adding cocoa flavanols to their diet.
As with all dietary or medical advice, we recommend that you follow the strict treatment plans as prescribed by your doctor.
d. Raises HDL and protects LDL from oxidation
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease. It may even protect against high cholesterol. In a small study, eating dark chocolate supplemented with the flavanol lycopene was found to significantly decrease levels of total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Some forms of LDL cholesterol are more likely to oxidize, which happens if they react with free radicals in your body. Oxidation makes the LDL particle itself reactive and capable of damaging other tissues, such as the lining of the arteries in your heart. It makes perfect sense that cocoa lowers oxidation-prone forms of LDL. It contains an abundance of powerful antioxidants that do make it into the bloodstream and protect lipoproteins against oxidative damage.
The flavanols in dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for diseases like heart disease and diabetes. However, dark chocolate also contains sugar, which can have the opposite effect, leading to the recommendation of limited quantities.
e. May reduce heart disease risk
The compounds in dark chocolate appear to be highly protective against the oxidation of LDL, which in the long term should cause much less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries, resulting in a lower risk of heart disease.Over time, a number of studies have shown that consuming flavanol-rich cocoa or chocolate can lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
A review of studies revealed that eating chocolate 3 times per week lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease by 9%. Another review suggested that eating 45 grams of chocolate per week lowers cardiovascular disease risk by 11%. Consuming more than 100 grams per week does not appear to produce health benefits.
However, more evidence is needed to know if it was the chocolate that reduced the risk, but knowing the biological processes it’s plausible that regularly eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease.
f. May protect your skin from the sun
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin. The flavanols can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin density and hydration. The minimal erythemal dose (MED) is the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin 24 hours after exposure. Studies have shown that MED can increase and even double after consuming high-flavanol dark chocolate or cocoa for 12 weeks. The result is that your skin has better protection from the sun.
But check with your doctor or dermatologist before forgoing your normal skin care routine in favor of more dark chocolate. And remember that chocolate can’t replace sunscreen and other forms of sun protection!
g. Could improve brain function
And finally, dark chocolate may also improve the function of your brain. Studies show that eating high flavanol cocoa can improve blood flow to the brain in young adults. This may explain why eating cocoa daily appears to improve attention, verbal learning, and memory. Cocoa flavanoids may also help maintain cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment and reduce the chance of progressing to dementia. Although the studies are not conclusive and may require more research.
Finally, cocoa contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason why it can improve brain function in the short term
3. Final thoughts
Dark chocolate is a high-calorie food, containing about 150–170 calories per ounce. It also contains saturated fat, which may affect cholesterol levels. Research suggests the benefits of flavanols outweigh the risks of higher cholesterol. Choose quality: dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content is the best option when consuming as part of a balanced diet. Enjoy it in moderation for the greatest health benefits.
Our team of doctors and nurses are available to answer specific questions you may have about a healthy and balanced diet. Choosing a lifestyle to stay healthy and prevent heart disease should be a top priority. Get in touch to book your next consultation!
Disclaimer: This content including advice provides generic information only. It is in no way a substitute for a qualified medical opinion. Always consult a specialist or your own doctor for more information on the topic.