Most of the world knows what chocolate is, and about 52% will probably tell you they would be hard pressed to live without it. While there have been plenty of articles going back and forth about the benefits of dark chocolate it's hard to imagine that something so delicious could potentially be healthy, let alone a superfood.
The recommended serving amount for dark chocolate is up to 7oz per week, or 1oz a day. If you're worried about overindulgence limit your portion size and only eat it after a glass of water or piece of fruit so that you're not filling up on it. Since dark chocolate has such a rich flavor you can take your time over it and this can help you feel satiated with less.
What is Chocolate?
Chocolate is made by harvesting bean pods from the cocoa tree. These pods are processed to remove the beans then put through a process of fermentation,drying, roasting and then grinding.
These cocoa solids can be then used to create different products like cocoa mass and cocoa liquor which are then refined into the cocoa butter and cocoa powder we are familiar with. Both forms can be used (and often are) to make chocolate.
Dark chocolate is any form that contains more than 60% of cocoa solids and has much less or even no added sugars compared to milk chocolate. White chocolate actually contains no cocoa at all and isn't technically chocolate.
It has a much richer and almost bitter flavor compared to candy chocolate which is what makes it ideal for baking. The taste is much more intense which is why you often eat less of it to feel satisfied than other cocoa products.
When buying chocolate look for one that is made using cocoa butter rather than an alternative oil as it has less saturated fat and also increases the percentage of actual cocoa antioxidants in the product. Dark chocolate is richer in phytochemicals which means the darker the chocolate (and the higher the percentage of actual cocoa) the more antioxidant properties it has.
As with many food products the benefits from chocolate can only be found in products that are high in real cocoa solids and lower in chemical additives. Organic and fairly traded beans are the best source because they are less adulterated than candy brands.
Milk chocolate not only contains a lower percentage of actual cocoa but less antioxidants altogether because the proteins in the milk bind to the antioxidants and make them unavailable for the body to use. Milk chocolate can contain as little as 5% actual cocoa in it, the rest is fillers.You should avoid drinking milk with or immediately after eating dark chocolate if you want these benefits.
But isn't Chocolate Bad?
As long as you're choosing a good quality dark chocolate you're skipping the chemicals and sugar levels that turn chocolate from a health food into junk food. This doesn't mean you can simply eat all of it. There are still some health concerns with dark chocolate.
Like coffee, the cocoa bean also contains caffeine and this will be noticeable for anyone who is sensitive. It's a lot less caffeine than coffee but it's still there. This is good news for those who need a small boost during the day but don't like coffee.
Cocoa also contains tyramine, an acid that has been linked to triggering migraines. The higher the cocoa percentage, the higher the level of tyramine. Studies have only made a tenuous link between the two but if you find that you're getting headaches after eating chocolate it's probably because you are tyramine sensitive and should probably avoid dark chocolate or scale back to a lower percentage of cocoa.
Chocolate has also been linked to causing kidney stones because it contains oxalates. Oxalates in themselves are pretty harmless and they're excreted through the kidneys naturally.
However, if you're prone to kidney stones these oxalates bind with calcium to create the stone which means you need to avoid them as much as possible. Because the numbeoxalateslates is naturally higher in dark chocolate this is a bigger danger than with regular milk chocolate.
It's inevitable that any discussion of chocolate will lead to questions about fat. Being overweight is not healthy and a diet that contains a lot of chocolate is arguably going to cause weight gain. Most chocolate products are fairly high in calories which is why they can lead to weight gain when eaten in large amounts.
Dark chocolate is lower in calories than milk chocolate because it contains less sugar and no dairy, this means you'll consume less calories while eating the same volume of chocolate. Dark chocolate alone will not make you fat, eating too much of any food will though.
What Are the Benefits of Dark Chocolate?
After reading all that you're probably thinking there's no way chocolate can be good for you. In fact because of that high antioxidant content there are many benefits to regularly eating dark chocolate.
Studies have shown that dark chocolate can improve circulation and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease when consumed regularly by restoring flexibility to artery walls. Studies showed that people who ate dark chocolate regularly were 5% less likely to develop or die from heart conditions.
The problem with these studies is that they were observational and merely observed a difference based on that habit and there may have been more causing the figure. It's thought though that this benefit is linked to the same flavinoids found in green tea that have been shown to have the same heart healthy effect.
Heart disease and stroke often go hand in hand and Finnish researchers have determined that chocolate consumption can lower the risk. Strokes occur when blood vessels become narrow and blocked which impedes the flow of blood to a portion of the brain. Since chocolate improves circulation it will also lower your risk of stroke.
The studies that supported this however also cautioned strongly that the benefits of eating chocolate to lower these risks were only found in individuals who already led healthy lives, and that anyone who was overweight would still be at risk because of that factor.
From a macronutrient standpoint dark chocolate is rich in fat and carbohydrates, the carbohydrates come from the sugars in the butter or cocoa liquor and any that are added. Unlike more refined milk chocolate dark chocolate has significant amounts of minerals in it. Nutrients include zinc, selenium, potassium, and iron.
In fact, 100g of 70% dark chocolate can provide as much as 67% of an individuals daily iron needs. This could be one reason why women who are menstruating instinctively reach for chocolate. It also provides several micronutrients such as manganese, copper, and magnesium. These nutrients are needed to form red blood cells, regulate blood sugar, improve clotting, and maintain bone and brain function.
High antioxidant content
Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals that are taken into the body via toxins and environmental pollutants. These free radicals cause cells to mutate and die which can lead to aging and cancer. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants like polyphenols which can reduce your disk for developing cancer, heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Antioxidants are also linked to improved immune function so you'll be less likely to suffer from common illnesses like a cold or the flu. These same chemicals can protect against cell aging which keeps you looking younger.
We've noted that chocolate contains caffeine but it also contains theobromine which is another stimulant. Together these stimulate the central nervous system and can provide a temporary “pick me up” effect to reduce fatigue.
They've also been tentatively linked to relieving muscle tension which is why you might feel less stressed after eating chocolate. However, as noted these can also cause headaches in those that are sensitive and may also lead to nausea and in some sensitive cases a rapid heartbeat. Theobromine also happens to be a mild aphrodisiac and creates a similar buzz feeling to that of being in love.
Cocoa is one of many foods that has been linked to a lowering of “bad” LDL cholesterol and an increase in “good” HDL cholesterol. This may have something to do with why chocolate can also lower the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Studies on cholesterol and chocolate showed that the decrease was specifically related to a lower amount of oxidized LDL, or LDL that had become bonded with a free radical. The antioxidant richness of dark chocolate neutralizes this oxidized LDL and protects against it causing damage.
Lowers Diabetes Risk
Dark chocolate has been linked to reduced insulin resistance by improving the sensitivity of the body to the enzyme. With 500mg of polyphenols provide in each 100g tests showed that blood pressure was lower in those eating the dark chocolate daily and that the blood flow to the vascular endothelium in turn improved insulin sensitivity.
This lowered risk from diabetes may also be compounded in the fact that dark chocolate is lower in sugars and calories meaning those who eat it do not experience as sharp of a spike in blood sugar as those who eat milk chocolate and they also weigh less – both of which affect the risk for diabetes.
Good for Skin
Flavinoids and flavinol antioxidants are also good for your skin since they help protect the skin cells against free radical damage. Sunlight causes the body to produce free radicals, even if it's just minimal exposure. The higher the flavanol content of the chocolate the less likely the skin is to get sunburned.
Studies confirmed this and those who eat dark chocolate are half as likely to get sunburned as those who don't, suggesting that not only does the chocolate repair UV damaged cells it can also protect them so that they don't get damaged in the first place. Another reason this might be the case is because of improved circulation to the skin which gives cells better oxygenation and helps them repair and resist damage.
Flavinols have also been linked to improved memory and cognitive function. Improved blood flow to the brain also means your memory will be better and you'll have a better reaction time. The brain uses about 20% of the body's intake of oxygen which means there's the potential for a lot of free radical oxidation to take place.
Just like oxygen causes metal to rust it can cause your brain to deteriorate. High antioxidant levels protect against that damage by neutralizing the damage and preventing the cells aging or mutating. The flavinoids are also responsible for improving memory and activity in the hippocampus, plus there's the stimulant effect from the caffeine to make you feel more focused.
Dark chocolate boosts the production of endorphins, these are happy chemicals that make you feel good which can push back depression by mimicing the process that gives runners their “high” after working out. It also contains tryptophan which is an amino acid that can be broken down into serotonin – another feel good chemical.
On top of these it is a natural source of anandamine which has been referred to as the “bliss molecule” because it has a similar effect to that of the THC found in marijuana. There's also a significant amount of phenylathylamine which is called the “love drug” since it mimics the chemicals secreted by the brain when we experience the feeling of love. It's also been shown that this cocktail of chemicals works to reduce stress.
With so many benefits of dark chocolate how can you disagree that it's good for you? The key to healthy dark chocolate consumption is moderation, and when eaten as part of a healthy diet there's unlikely to be any significant harm. There are actually hundreds more reasons why dark chocolate is good for you, everything from being a prebiotic to having obscure chemicals the body needs to function better.
If you're still skeptical swap one of your other regular treats for dark chocolate and see what happens. What's the worst that could happen? You get to eat chocolate!