If you’re like me, you love to eat chocolate. But not just any chocolate — I eat the varieties that are often referred to as “superfoods.” I’m talking about dark chocolate and cacoa nibs, which are both truly healthy forms of chocolate if you pick the right products. You’re probably thinking how is dark chocolate good for you, and in general, is chocolate good for you? Well, I’m about to tell you all about dark chocolate and how the benefits of dark chocolate are definitely for real.
The average American consumes roughly 12 pounds of chocolate each year, and over $75 billion is spent annually worldwide on chocolate. (1) There is a lot of chocolate eating going on regularly, which is why I want to help you make the smart, healthy choice. That way you can have your chocolate without guilt and with health benefits of dark chocolate to boot!
Chocolate lovers rejoice when the benefits of antioxidants found in chocolate are talked about, but it’s important to realize that not all chocolate is created equal, not even close. The potential health benefits of processed, highly sweetened chocolate are slim to none, but the health benefits of dark chocolate are numerous and quite impressive.
As preventive cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City says, “When looking for a sweet snack, a square of dark chocolate might, in fact, be your healthiest choice!” (2) Let’s look at exactly why this expert medical opinion really does ring true and why a little dark chocolate is more than just a tasty treat — with health benefits of dark chocolate that include protection against disease and improved brain and heart health.
7 Awesome Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
1. Protection from Disease-Causing Free Radicals
One of my favorite benefits of dark chocolate is its free radical fighting ability. Free radicals are unbalanced compounds created by cellular processes in the body, especially those that fight against environmental toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Antioxidants are the compounds that are believed to neutralize free radicals and protect the body from their damage.
Antioxidants include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals — helpful plant compounds. One of dark chocolate’s most impressive attributes is its high antioxidant content, which is why it made my list of top 10 high-antioxidant foods.
Two groups of antioxidants prevalent in dark chocolate are flavonoids and polyphenols. Dark chocolate’s cocoa has actually been shown to have the highest content of polyphenols and flavonoids, even greater than wine and tea. (3) So the higher the cacao/cocoa percentage of your next dark chocolate bar, the more awesome antioxidants you’ll consume.
2. Potential Cancer Prevention
It may be hard to believe, but that tasty dark chocolate you eat and love may also help you ward off cancer. That’s right — one of the benefits of dark chocolate is its potential as a cancer-fighting food.
According to the American Cancer Institute: (4)
“Given chocolate’s rich supply of flavonoids, researchers have also investigated whether it may play a role in cancer prevention. The studies in cancer prevention are still emerging. A recent review of studies on the cancer protective properties of cocoa concluded that the evidence is limited but suggestive. More rigorous studies should be conducted on chocolates’ cancer protective role, concluded the author, because it provides ‘strong antioxidant effects in combination with a pleasurable eating experience.'”
3. Improved Heart Health
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in dark chocolate. According to Cleveland Clinic, research has shown that flavanols have a very positive effect on heart health by helping lower blood pressure and improving blood flow to the heart as well as the brain. Dark chocolates flavanols can also help make blood platelets less sticky and able to clot, which reduces the risk of blood clots and stroke. (5)
A study published in International Journal of Cardiology had subjects either consume a daily dose of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate or non-flavonoid white chocolate for two weeks. The results showed that flavonoid-rich dark chocolate intake significantly improved heart circulation in healthy adults. On the other hand, white chocolate with zero flavonoids to brag about had no positive health effects on the subjects. (6)
Another study published in 2015 titled followed the health of over 20,000 people for 11 years. The study concluded that “cumulative evidence suggests that higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of future cardiovascular events” and that “there does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk.” Among subjects who consumed the most chocolate, 12 percent developed or died of cardiovascular disease during the study compared to 17.4 percent of those who didn’t eat chocolate. (7) This doesn’t give anyone license to eat a chocolate bar each day, but it’s impressive that this large and lengthy study does appear to show a positive connection between chocolate consumption and heart health.
4. Good for Overall Cholesterol Profile
The cocoa butter found in dark chocolate contains equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. It’s true that stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat, but research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, which means it doesn’t raise it or lower it. The palmitic acid in dark chocolate can increase cholesterol levels, but thankfully it only makes up about a small portion of the fat in dark chocolate — plus dark chocolate has a lot of great plant nutrients that make up for palmitic acid.
A 2009 study published in Southern Medical Journal looked at the effects of dark chocolate on 28 healthy voluntary subjects. The researchers found that just one week of dark chocolate consumption improved lipid profiles and decreased platelet reactivity for both men and women while reducing inflammation only in women. (8)
Studies have also shown that:
- Dark chocolate’s cocoa polyphenols may be involved in cholesterol control.
- Three-week consumption of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate increased HDL (good) cholesterol.
- 15-day consumption of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate resulted in total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol decreases of 6.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.
- Seven-day consumption of regular dark chocolate resulted in a 6 percent decrease of LDL cholesterol and a 9 percent increase of HDL cholesterol.
5. Better Cognitive Function
Dark chocolate makes my list of 15 brain foods to boost focus and memory for good reason. Previous research showed that “acute as well as chronic ingestion of flavanol-rich cocoa is associated with increased blood flow to cerebral gray matter and it has been suggested that cocoa flavanols might be beneficial in conditions with reduced cerebral blood flow, including dementia and stroke.”
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated flavonoid-rich dark chocolate’s ability to improve cognitive ability, specifically in the elderly. This cross-sectional study of over 2,000 participants ages 70 to 74 years old looked at the relationship between the intake of chocolate, wine and tea (all rich in flavonoids) and cognitive performance. The study concludes that “intake of flavonoid-rich food, including chocolate, wine, and tea, is associated with better performance across several cognitive abilities and that the associations are dose dependent.” The researchers suggest that further studies should take into account other bioactive dietary substances in chocolate, wine and tea to ensure that it’s their flavonoid content that helps the brain so much. (9)
6. Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Aid
As I’m writing this article, there are already 75 scientific articles looking at dark chocolate and blood pressure. A study published in 2015 compared type 2 diabetics’ consumption of white chocolate versus high-cocoa, polyphenol-rich dark chocolate. The subjects consumed 25 grams (a little under one ounce) of dark or white chocolate for eight weeks. The researchers found that not only did dark chocolate lower the blood pressure of the hypertensive diabetics, but it also decreased fasting blood sugar. (10)
Of course, if you’re a diabetic, the higher the cocoa content, which also means the lower the sugar content, the better. It’s also key to note that this was a very small amount of dark chocolate per day at 0.88 ounces.
7. Antioxidant-Rich Superfood
In a study conducted by the Hershey Co. and published in Chemistry Central Journal, the total flavanol and polyphenol content as well as antioxidant activity content of dark chocolate and cocoa powder were compared to super fruits like acai, cranberry, blueberry and pomegranate. The dark chocolates, cocoa powders and cocoa beverage in the study all contained natural or non-alkalized cocoa. This is important to note since the alkalinization of cocoa has been shown to destroy healthy polyphenolic compounds.
So what did the study show? The researchers found that the flavanol content of cocoa powder (30.1 milligrams per gram) was significantly greater than all of the other super fruit powders. It was also revealed that dark chocolate’s antioxidant capacity was higher than all of the super fruit juices except pomegranate. The total polyphenol content per serving was also highest for dark chocolate (about 1,000 milligrams per serving), which was significantly higher than all of the fruit juices except pomegranate juice. (11)
What Is Dark Chocolate?
There are several types of chocolate, as you probably already know. Most people divide chocolate into three categories: white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate. The FDA actually does not have a standard of identity for dark chocolate, but the general consensus is that dark chocolate typically contains between 70 percent to 99 percent pure cacoa or cocoa solids. Some set the standard for dark chocolate even lower at 60 percent or less. This can be done since there is no set standard at the moment.
Dark chocolate is made from cacao or cocoa. All chocolate starts as harvested cacao beans from the plant’s seed pods. Once harvested, the cacao beans are typically fermented and dried before being sent off to factories for further production. Pure cacao and pure cocoa powder both have antioxidants and health benefits. However, raw cacao powder is different because it does not undergo any heating and therefore has more nutrients and health properties. Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans so it retains more of its natural goodness while cocoa powder is typically heated at much higher temperatures. Dutched cocoa also gets washed in a potassium solution that neutralizes its acidity, which gives it a darker color and a more mellow flavor. (12)
Dark chocolate is also called semisweet chocolate while extra dark chocolate is often considered the same as bittersweet, although the ratio of cocoa butter to solids may vary between the varieties. (13) According to the FDA, semisweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate is a sweet chocolate that contains no less than 35 percent (by weight) of pure cocoa. (14) Semisweet and bittersweet are both commonly used in baking, and although the FDA defines them in the same way, bittersweet chocolate typically has a deeper flavor and less sweetness than semisweet chocolate. (15) Unsweetened or baker’s chocolate is usually almost 100 percent cocoa with no sweetness whatsoever.
Due to the higher cocoa content, dark chocolate has a much richer flavor than milk chocolate. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the richer the taste. Cocoa is naturally bitter and very strong-tasting. Chocolate-makers (especially makers of milk chocolate) mellow this flavor by processes, such as alkalizing, fermenting, roasting, and adding milk and/or sugar, all of which can destroy healthy flavanols, alter our ability to use them or negate their health effects all together with unhealthy additives.
Legally, milk chocolate only needs to be at least 10 percent pure chocolate with at least 3.39 percent milk fat and at least 12 percent milk solids. (16) Studies have shown that the proteins in milk might reduce the absorption of the healthy antioxidants from cocoa. What’s the problem with milk? Milk actually appears to bind itself to the flavonoids in chocolate, making them unavailable to our bodies. (17) This is why milk chocolate is not a good antioxidant source. It’s also why you don’t want to drink milk with your dark chocolate.
White chocolate is even worse than milk chocolate. White “chocolate” is not really chocolate at all because it doesn’t even have contain any cocoa solids, only cocoa butter. (18)
I only recommend eating small amounts of minimally processed dark chocolate with at least a 70 percent cocoa content or higher. This type of chocolate is a healthy chocolate that contains the most powerful antioxidants and the least amount of sugar, providing the most benefits of dark chocolate you can get.
Dark Chocolate Nutrition
Dark chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are actually not beans at all. They’re the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. To make dark chocolate, the seeds are dried and then processed to ultimately produce the hardened bars.
You wouldn’t think any candy bar could ever be nutritious, but dark chocolate nutrition is actually quite impressive, especially when it comes to fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese and copper. Benefits of dark chocolate abound thanks to all this goodness.
Just an ounce of dark chocolate with 70 percent to 85 percent cacao solids contains around: (19)
- 168 calories
- 12.8 grams carbohydrates
- 2.2 grams protein
- 12 grams fat
- 3.1 grams fiber
- 0.5 milligram manganese (27 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligram copper (25 percent DV)
- 3.3 milligrams iron (19 percent DV)
- 63.8 milligrams magnesium (16 percent DV)
- 86.2 milligrams phosphorus (9 percent DV)
- 200 milligrams potassium (6 percent DV)
- 0.9 miligram zinc (6 percent DV)
- 2 micrograms vitamin K (3 percent DV)
- 1.9 micrograms selenium (3 percent DV)
- 20.4 milligrams calcium (2 percent DV)
What to Buy and Recipe Recommendations
I only recommend buying and eating small amounts of minimally processed dark chocolate with a cacao content of at least 70 percent. This type of chocolate contains the most powerful antioxidants and the least amount of sugar. Thankfully, there are a lot of chocolate brands today that offer options that fits this 70 percentage minimum suggestion. The higher the percentage, the greater the potential health benefits of dark chocolate.
The addition of whole almonds to a high-percentage dark chocolate bar can be an added health booster, but watch out for unhealthy additions like marshmallows and caramel. Those unhealthy ingredients can mitigate the benefits of dark chocolate.
You should also look for dark chocolate that’s created from fairly traded or organic cocoa/cacao beans. Cocoa can be minimally processed, but if you want raw or the least processed option, you definitely want cacao to be the main ingredient in your dark chocolate.
Your dark chocolate of choice should also be made from cocoa butter, not palm and/or coconut oils. Also look out for any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. Now that huge commercial chocolate makers are responding to the love of dark chocolate and making their own versions, you have to be careful. A label that reads “dark chocolate” doesn’t automatically make it a healthy choice. The healthiest or best dark chocolate is made from cacao or cocoa that’s organic, minimally processed and definitely not dutched.
Dark chocolate is actually included in the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine Healing Foods Pyramid™ as part of a balanced, whole foods, plant-based diet. It recommends up to seven ounces of dark chocolate each week with an average intake of one ounce each day. (20) I agree with this moderate recommendation.
Dark chocolate isn’t as high in sugar as other chocolate varieties, but if you’re diabetic or just looking to lower your sugar intake, you can now find dark chocolate bars sweetened with stevia and other alternative lower/no sugar natural sweeteners.
Now, are you ready for some of the most delicious as well as healthy dark chocolate recipes? You can get all the benefits of dark chocolate without any of the guilt.
Here are some of my favorite dark chocolate recipes that are sure to satisfy that chocolate craving and reap the benefits of dark chocolate:
- Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Recipe
- Dark Chocolate Protein Truffles Recipe
- Dark Chocolate Coconut Clusters Recipe
Dark Chocolate History
Chocolate’s lengthy history is believed to go all the way back to 1900 B.C. This is when the the Aztec civilization believed that cacao seeds were a gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. They used the seeds to prepare a bitter, frothy beverage that also included spices, wine or corn puree. (21) It was very different from today’s super sweet milk chocolate treats but closer to a very minimally processed dark chocolate made from raw cacao.
It was in 1847 that a British chocolate company (J.S. Fry & Sons) created the first solid edible chocolate bar from three ingredients: cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar. Huge names like Cadbury, Mars and Hershey came into the picture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The love of chocolate has only continued to grow over the years. Now many mainstream chocolate producers make “dark chocolate” that really isn’t very healthy. On the other hand, there are now more and more companies making high-quality, high-cacao/cocoa content chocolate that’s not only dark, but also organic and fairly traded.
There’s no doubt that dark chocolate is trending in today’s marketplace, and sales don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Over the last few years, the chocolate industry has seen a move to premium and certified organic dark chocolate, specifically products that are single-origin; have high cacao content’ use natural sweeteners, such as agave, stevia, yacon or coconut sugar; as well as increased sustainable sourcing and origin labeling. As science shows more and more benefits of dark chocolate, its popularity will only continue to grow.
Dark Chocolate Precautions
To avoid overindulging in dark chocolate yet obtain the benefits of dark chocolate, it’s a smart idea to eat a little piece by itself after a solid meal or include it in a recipe. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or looking to avoid caffeine entirely, it’s important to know that there are measurable amounts of caffeine in dark chocolate. Caffeine side effects can include nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness and a rapid heartbeat, all reasons to avoid caffeine overdose.
According to Mayo Clinic, chocolate can also cause: (22)
- allergic skin reactions
- colic in infants
- decreased bone density
- dental caries
- increased cholesterol levels
- increased insulin levels
- irregular heart rhythms
- irritable bowel syndrome
- kidney damage and disorders
- nausea and vomiting
- neck pain
- sleep disturbances
- stomach rumbling and upset stomach
- swelling under the skin
- unpleasant taste
- weight gain
This is a long list, but all of these possible side effects can typically be avoided by not overindulging in dark chocolate.
Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to become pregnant should also make sure not to have large amounts of chocolate. In moderation, dark chocolate is considered safe for pregnant women. (23)
If you’re allergic or have an intolerance to dairy, be extra careful about label reading and research before choosing your go-to dark chocolate. Milk is legally permitted to be put into dark chocolate, but since it’s one of the eight major food allergens, U.S. laws do require chocolate makers to list milk as an ingredient.
According to the FDA, chocolates are unfortunately one of the most common sources of undeclared milk linked to consumer reactions. In addition, recent testing by the FDA found that you can’t always tell if a dark chocolate has milk just by reading the ingredient list. Many manufacturers make their dark chocolate on the same equipment that they use for milk chocolate production so traces of milk end up in the dark chocolate too. (24) If you’re concerned about milk possibly being in your dark chocolate, contact the manufacturer.
Another possible allergen to watch out for in dark chocolate (even organic brands) is soy lecithin, which is commonly added as an emulsifying agent. Soy lecithin does contain trace amounts of soy proteins, and these have been found to include soy allergens. However, soy lecithin does not appear to contain sufficient soy protein residues to induce allergic reactions in the majority of soy-allergic consumers. (25)
Some people look to avoid soy lecithin not for allergic reasons, but because of their desire to avoid genetically modified soy. If you’re going to buy a dark chocolate with soy lecithin, I recommend looking for organic soy lecithin or non-GMO soy lecithin to avoid GMOs.
Dark chocolate is not a low-calorie or low-fat food so these are some other good reasons not to overdo it. The flavor is so rich that you can enjoy it and get the benefits of dark chocolate with just a little piece.
If you have pets, make sure they don’t get into your dark chocolate stash since chocolate in all forms is poisonous to both cats and dogs.
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Dark Chocolate
So is dark chocolate good for you? Most certainly yes, as long as you choose the right product. When you choose the best and healthiest option, there are so many awesome benefits of dark chocolate.
In moderation (one ounce or less per day), dark chocolate has been shown to improve so many common and chronic health problems. With all of its natural and health-promoting components (like flavonoids, polyphenols and flavanols), dark chocolate is an antioxidant powerhouse and a superfood that’s truly a joy to eat. It’s been shown to boost heart and brain health, along with fight disease — just some of the many benefits of dark chocolate.
So go ahead — reward yourself guilt-free and promote your health at the same time with a delicious piece of dark chocolate.