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Let’s Talk About the Sweet Health Benefits of Chocolate

Is chocolate good for your heart? Are dark chocolate benefits really worth passing on other sweeter options? These are just some of the questions chocolate lovers wonder when buying treats whether it’s for holidays, birthdays, or just because. Well, you’ll be glad to know small studies show that, yes—certain types of chocolate offer a range of health benefits, including heart health support—but don’t stop reading just yet.1 Not all chocolates are created equal, and some don’t contain any health benefits at all. If you want to get the most out of this tasty treat, here’s a quick breakdown of what exactly makes chocolate so sweet, how to choose the best ones, and even some quick ways to add more chocolate into your life.

What are the health benefits of chocolate?

Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols

Flavanols are compounds found in various plants and are considered to be the reason for chocolate’s many health benefits.2 That said, most of us aren’t chomping down on cocoa beans no matter how healthy they may be. The chocolate we eat contains various byproducts of the cocoa bean and often ends up on the shelf containing much lower flavanol levels.

Cocoa flavanols may help protect the heart

One study in 2015 looked at the diets of over 20,000 men and women and found that those who ate chocolate on a regular basis had a lower risk for heart disease than those who didn’t eat chocolate.3 A review of studies on dietary intake of over 100,000 participants found chocolate consumption had substantial benefits to heart health.4

Cocoa flavanols may help maintain blood pressure

A study found as little as 6 grams of dark chocolate a day (1 small square) may help maintain a healthy blood pressure.5 Flavanols have been shown to help support blood vessel relaxation and improve blood flow—which may play a role in both blood pressure regulation.6

Cocoa flavanols may improve insulin sensitivity

In short-term studies, flavanols in chocolate increased insulin sensitivity, which is important in blood sugar regulation.7 They’ve also been shown to lower inflammation markers in the body, which is key to maintaining health.8 

Cocoa flavanols may help support cognitive function

Because flavanols are thought to improve blood flow, increase insulin sensitivity, and low inflammatory markers, scientists think they may also benefit brain health.9 One study from 2015 showed that out of the 90 elderly adults studied, those who consumed a high flavanol chocolate drink showed significant improvements in cognitive function, compared with those who only consumed low amounts of it.9 Younger adults may benefit, as well. A recent study showed women aged 18–24 years had an improvement in verbal memory 2 hours after consuming 70% dark chocolate.10

Dark chocolate contains more flavanols than milk or white chocolate11

There’s a reason why everyone says dark chocolate is the “healthiest” chocolate. Dark chocolate contains cocoa solids, which is where all flavanols are found.11 Dark chocolate consists of 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar.11 Whereas milk chocolate contains only 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, plus milk—which only adds to your chocolate’s overall caloric and sugar intake.11

On the other hand, white chocolate is only made from cocoa butter, sugar, and milk. It doesn’t contain any cocoa solids or flavanols.2,11

Dark chocolate contains a lot of other nutrients too

Did you know dark chocolate is a good source of magnesium? Because dark chocolate contains more cocoa, it is a good source of key minerals including:12,13

  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc

Dark chocolate also contains, in smaller amounts:13

  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin B12
  • Thiamin
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Pantothenic acid

Cocoa powder has antioxidant activity too!

Cocoa powders are used in all kinds of drinks and baking recipes, so they’re worth noting here too. Cocoa powder can be a good source of flavanols, considering it’s made from pure cocoa solids, which is where all the flavanols are stored. Flavanols may be lost when cooking with baking powder, which is used as a leavening agent for cakes.14 But cocoa baking powder retains antioxidant activity in most other baked goods.

Higher quality chocolates only add to the health benefits of chocolate

Lower quality milk and white chocolates may also include additives to sweeten them up, like butter fat, vegetable oils, and artificial colors or sweeteners.11 So, whether you’re a milk chocolate diehard or willing to go for dark, buying higher quality options without all the additives can only help you feel even more confident in your cocoa-based treats.

How much should you eat to get the health benefits of chocolate?

There aren’t any set guidelines for how much chocolate you should or shouldn’t eat in a day. Some research suggests 6 grams of 70% dark chocolate per day (about one small square of a chocolate bar, or 2 tsp of dark chocolate cocoa powder) can provide heart health benefits.4 But given the sheer caloric intake and sugars found in chocolate, moderation is key.12

What are the downsides to consuming chocolate?

You probably already know this, but chocolate contains more than just nutrients and antioxidants—it also contains a lot of calories, sugar, and saturated fat. So it’s important to enjoy those chocolatey treats in moderation.

You might want to avoid chocolate if you’re watching your weight15

There are a few reasons why dark chocolate may not fit into everyone’s diets. It’s high in calories and if eaten in excess, can contribute to weight gain.

You may want to avoid chocolate if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or sensitive to caffeine

Chocolate of all types contains caffeine. For example, two ounces of 70% dark chocolate contains about 50-60mg of caffeine, which is about the same amount as drinking 4 ounces of coffee.11,15 The basic rule of thumb here is the more cocoa solids there are, the higher the caffeine content will be.11

You may want to avoid chocolate if you get migraines or it upsets stomach

This isn’t common, but for some people dark chocolate may cause skin rashes gastroesophagial reflux or an upset stomach.15 Ingredients in cocoa such as phenylethylamine and caffeine may be triggers for migraines in some individuals, although research hasn’t established a direct link.15

What are the health benefits of chocolate compared to other foods?

Flavanols aren’t only found in cocoa. They’re also found in berries, cabbage, onions, oranges, apples, strawberries, radishes, tea, and even wine.16 While cocoa contains more of a specific type of flavanol called “flavan-3-ol”it is important to consume a plant-rich diet that will provide a wide variety of flavanols. The chocolate treats we eat also tend to contain many more calories and (depending on the type) some added sugars and fats.

So if you’re looking to up your flavanol intake, here are some other delicious foods that are a good source of the same type of flavanol you find in chocolate:16

  • Red delicious apples
  • Apricots
  • Green, black, oolong, or white tea
  • Red Shiraz wine

4 ways to get dark chocolate benefits without the bitterness

We get it. Dark chocolate isn’t for everyone. It’s bitter (because of all those phytonutrients!), and for a lot of people, that’s a turnoff. Before you resort to the cheaper, less healthy options, see if these tips and tricks get you loving dark chocolate as much as we do.

  • Add fruit to your dark chocolate bars. Try buying dark chocolate bars that include some of your favorite fruits to see if the mix makes it something special.
  • Melt dark chocolate in your mouth. Because the bitterness in dark chocolate comes from the cocoa solids, one trick to make dark chocolate taste less bitter is to slowly melt it first in your mouth.11
  • Melt dark chocolate on a stovetop or in the microwave and drizzle it over your favorite treats. On the stovetop, continually stir the chocolate over low heat for about one minute. In the microwave, heat your chocolate bits at only half power to prevent burning.11 Then drizzle it over some oatmeal, yogurt, or fresh fruit.
  • Use 100% cocoa baking powder for chocolate frosting, hot cocoa, or chocolate cookies.
  • Make a cocoa powder smoothie. Blend 1-2 tablespoons of unprocessed cocoa powder with a large frozen banana for a quick and cool dairy-free treat!11

Yes, dark chocolate is good for you in moderation

Dark chocolate is a treat you can feel good about eating (in moderation) in more ways than one. Milk chocolate contains health supporting flavanols, but not nearly as many — and white chocolate contains no flavanols at all. So if you’re serious about eating healthier treats, find some creative ways to sneak a small square or two of dark chocolate into your diet. Keep an eye on the caloric intake and watch out for any added sugars or fats. But luckily for all us chocolate lovers out there, it turns out the truth about the health benefits of chocolate are indeed more sweet than bitter!

 

This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.

References

  1. National Institutes of Health: News in Health. “Chocolate Health Claims: Sweet Truth or Bitter Reality?” 2021. US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed on: February 12, 2021. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2021/02/chocolate-health-claims
  2. National Institutes of Health: News in Health. “Claims About Cocoa: Can Chocolate Really Be Good For You?” 2011. US Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed on: February 12, 2021. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2011/08/claims-about-cocoa
  3. Kwok CS, et al. Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. Heart. 2015;101(16):1279-87.
  4. Buitrago-Lopez A., et al. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ 2011; 343.
  5. Buijsse B, et al. Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults. Eur Heart J. 2010;31(13):1616-23.
  6. Ludovici V, et al. Cocoa, Blood Pressure, and Vascular Function. Front Nutr. 2017;4:36.
  7. Shah SR, et al. Use of dark chocolate for diabetic patients: a review of the literature and current evidence. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2017;7(4):218-221.
  8. Selmi C, et al. Chocolate at heart: the anti-inflammatory impact of cocoa flavanols. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008;52(11):1340-8.
  9. Mastroiacovo D, et al. Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):538-548.
  10. Lamport, D.J. et al. Dark Chocolate for Episodic Memory in Healthy Young Adults: A Parallel-Groups Acute Intervention with a White Chocolate Control. Nutrients. 2020;12:483.
  11. Harvard TH Chan, School of Public Health. “Dark Chocolate.” 2021. The President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Accessed on: February 12, 2021. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/dark-chocolate/
  12. Today’s Dietitian. “Ask the Expert: Chocolate’s Health Benefits.” 2016. Great Valley Publishing Company. Accessed on: February 12, 2021. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0216p10.shtml#:~:text=Although%20chocolate%2C%20especially%20dark%2C%20contains,and%20saturated%20fat%20in%20check
  13. FoodData Central. “Chocolate, dark, 70–85% cacao solids.” US Department of Agriculture. Accessed on: February 12, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170273/nutrients
  14. Stahl L, et al. Preservation of cocoa antioxidant activity, total polyphenols, flavan-3-ols, and procyanidin content in foods prepared with cocoa powder. J Food Sci. 2009;74(6):C456-61.
  15. Zugravu, Corina, and Marina Ruxandra Otelea. "Dark chocolate: To eat or not to eat? A review." Journal of AOAC International 2019;102.5:1388-1396. https://academic.oup.com/jaoac/article/102/5/1388/5658268?login=true
  16. Linus Pauling Institute: Micronutrient Information Center. “Flavonoids: Food Sources.” 2016. Oregon State University. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/flavonoids#food-sources

 


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