(With excerpts from Kris Gunnars, BSc)
Dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health.
Made from the seed of the cocoa tree, it is one of the best sources of antioxidants on the planet.
Studies show that dark chocolate (not the sugary kind) can improve health and lower the risk of heart disease.
1. Dark Chocolate is Loaded With Nutrients
Quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contains soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals.
A 3.5 ounces bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains:
- 11 grams of fiber.
- 67% of the RDA for Iron.
- 58% of the RDA for Magnesium.
- 89% of the RDA for Copper.
- 98% of the RDA for Manganese.
- It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium.
3.5 ounces is a fairly large amount and probably not something you should make a daily habit. Along with all these nutrients comes a whopping 600 calories and, depending on what kind you buy, lots of sugar.
To reap the benefits of dark chocolate without adding excess calories to your diet, chocolate is best consumed in moderation.
The fats in dark chocolate are mostly saturated and monounsaturated while containing only small amounts of polyunsaturates – This gives dark chocolate and cocoa an excellent fatty acid profile.
You can also find stimulants like caffeine and theobromine in this tasty treat, but not to worry, It’s hardly enough to keep you up at night or take away from your precious Z’s.
Bottom Line: Quality dark chocolate is rich in Fiber, Iron, Magnesium, Copper, Manganese and a few other minerals.
2. Dark Chocolate is a Powerful Source of Antioxidants
The antioxidant activity of foods is measured using ORAC, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.
Essentially, researchers pit a bunch of free radicals (bad) against a sample of food and see how well the antioxidants in the food can “disarm” them.
The biological relevance of this metric is questioned, because it’s done in a test tube and may not have the same effect in the body.
However, I think it is worth mentioning that raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are among the highest scoring foods that have been tested.
Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins, among others.
One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate contained more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than other fruits they tested, which included blueberries and Acai berries.
Bottom Line: Cocoa and dark chocolate have a wide variety of powerful antioxidants – and in greater concentration than most other foods.
3. Dark Chocolate May Improve Blood Flow and Lower Blood Pressure
The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce Nitric Oxide (NO), which is a gas.
One of the functions of NO is to send signals that relax the arteries, which lowers resistance to blood flow reducing blood pressure.
Controlled trials have been done showing in their results that cocoa and dark chocolate can mildly improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
However, there is also one study in people with elevated blood pressure that showed no effect, so take all this with a grain of salt.
Bottom Line: The bioactive compounds in cocoa can improve blood flow in the arteries and cause a small but statistically significant decrease in blood pressure.
4. Dark Chocolate Raises HDL and Protects LDL Against Oxidation
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease. Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
In a controlled trial, cocoa powder was found to significantly decrease oxidized LDL (“bad” cholesterol) cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL in men with elevated cholesterol.
Cocoa lowers oxidized LDL. It contains an abundance of powerful antioxidants that do make it into the bloodstream and protect lipoproteins against oxidative damage.
Bottom Line: Dark chocolate improves several important risk factors for disease. It lowers the susceptibility of LDL to oxidative damage while increasing HDL and improving insulin sensitivity.
5. Dark Chocolate May Lower The Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
The compounds in dark chocolate appear to be highly protective against the oxidation of LDL. In the long term, this should cause much less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries and we should see a lower risk of heart disease over the long term.
Several long-term observational studies that show a fairly drastic improvement.
In a study of 470 elderly men, cocoa was found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular death by a whopping 50% over a 15 year period.
Another study revealed that eating chocolate 2 or more times per week lowered the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32%. Eating chocolate less frequently had no effect.
Yet another study showed that chocolate 5+ times per week lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease by 57%.
Of course, these 3 studies are so-called observational studies that cannot prove that it was the chocolate that caused the reduction in risk.
However, given that we have a biological mechanism (lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL) then I find it plausible that regular consumption of dark chocolate can in fact reduce the risk of heart disease.
Bottom Line: Observational studies show a drastic reduction in heart disease risk for the people who consume the most chocolate.
6. Dark Chocolate May Protect Your Skin Against The Sun
The bioactive compounds, called flavonols, in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin.
The flavonols in dark chocolate can protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration.
If you’re planning on a beach vacation, consider loading up on dark chocolate in the prior weeks and months. In one 30 person study, the MED (the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin, 24 hours after exposure), more than doubled after they had been consuming dark chocolate high in flavanols for 12 weeks.
Bottom Line: Studies show that the flavanols from cocoa can improve blood flow to the skin and protect it against sun-induced damage.
7. Dark Chocolate May Improve Brain Function
The good news isn’t over yet. Dark chocolate may also improve the function of the brain.
One study of healthy volunteers showed that 5 days of consuming high-flavanol cocoa improved blood flow to the brain.
Cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment. It also improves verbal fluency and several risk factors for disease.
Cocoa also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason cocoa can improve brain function in the short term.
Take Home Message
There is considerable evidence that cocoa can provide powerful health benefits, being especially protective against cardiovascular disease.
But of course, this doesn’t mean people should go all out and consume lots of chocolate every day. It is still loaded with calories and easy to overeat on. Maybe have a square or two after dinner and try to really savor them.
Be aware that a lot of the chocolate on the market is not the good stuff. You need to choose quality stuff… organic, dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content.
Dark chocolates often contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.