Chocolate is arguably the world’s favorite sweet treat. Each year, an estimated 7.2 million metric tons of chocolate is consumed worldwide. But while confectionary chocolate has a bad reputation as sugary, addictive, and guilt-inducing – dark chocolate, with its higher cocoa content, is a true super food that you can feel good about eating.
The Food Of Gods…
Of the Theobroma genus, which literally translates to “god food” in Greek, the journey from seed to candy requires multiple steps to transform raw cocoa into delicious, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate.
The cacao tree produces clusters of large ovoid fruit, nearly 12 inches in length. When cracked open, the cacao pod contains dozens of seeds surrounded by pulp. The seeds are extracted from the pod to be fermented, then dried, and finally roasted into cocoa beans. At this stage, the shells can be removed from the bean in order to isolate the meat, also known as cocoa nibs.
Cocoa nibs are essentially chocolate in its purest form. The next steps call for the cocoa nibs to be ground up into a liquid, called chocolate liquor. The chocolate liquor is then processed again to separate the fatty portion from the liquid – what we know as cocoa butter – from the cocoa solids. The cocoa solids are then further refined through ‘conching’ to ensure the chocolate is silky smooth on the tongue, and ‘tempering’ to raise the melting point so that the finished chocolate is glossy and firm.
The health value of chocolate is determined at the blending stage:
Milk Chocolate typically contains anywhere from 10% to 50% cocoa solids, and is blended with sugar, cocoa butter, and some form of dairy.
White Chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids at all, made using only cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
Dark Chocolate is the purest cocoa experience, containing between 70% to 100% cocoa solids. Depending on the percentage of cocoa, it may be blended with cocoa butter and sugar.
7 Health Benefits Of Dark Chocolate
1. Dark Chocolate Is Surprisingly Nutritious
While chocolate doesn’t exactly have the reputation for being a health food, the higher cocoa solids content of dark chocolate boosts its nutritional profile considerably:
|Per 100 g||% of DV|
|Vitamin A||39 IU||1%|
|Vitamin K||7.3 mcg||9%|
|Vitamin B6||0.1 mg||2%|
|Pantothenic Acid||0.4 mg||4%|
Although 70% to 85% dark chocolate is a good source of fiber, protein, and minerals, a 100 gram bar is still quite high in calories, sugar, and saturated fat. For this reason, it is well advised to only consume dark chocolate in moderation.
2. Dark Chocolate Is An Excellent Source Of Antioxidants
Dark chocolate is rich in several important antioxidants, including flavanols, polyphenols, catechins, and proanthocyanins.
When compared with other “super fruits”, dark chocolate was found to be a superior source of antioxidants according to a study published in Chemistry Central Journal. The researchers measured the total flavanol, polyphenol, and antioxidant activity of some of the most well known super foods, namely acai berries, blueberries, cranberries, and pomegranate. They found that not only was cocoa powder and dark chocolate higher in flavanols and polyphenols, but its oxygen radical absorbance capacity was significantly greater as well.
Believe it or not, the study’s authors concluded that dark chocolate absolutely meets the requirements of being considered a super fruit too.
3. Dark Chocolate Improves Blood Flow
Hypertension – or high blood pressure – is a long-term medical condition that is a major risk factor for the development of coronary disease, stroke, vision loss, kidney disease, and dementia.
But eating a small amount of dark chocolate each day can help improve blood pressure and blood flow, due to its heightened cocoa polyphenol content.
The randomized controlled trial published in JAMA involved 44 men and women with untreated prehypertension or stage 1 hypertension. Over the course of 18 weeks, participants consumed either 6.3 grams of dark chocolate or white chocolate each day. Compared with baseline, the dark chocolate group had improved blood circulation, as well as reduced mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure. The prevalence of hypertension declined from 86% to 68%. Eating small amounts of dark chocolate daily had no adverse effect on metabolics such as body weight, lipid levels in the blood, or glucose. Those who consumed white chocolate, on the other hand, experienced no changes in blood pressure.
4. Dark Chocolate Lowers Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood. While it is necessary for building healthy cells, having consistently high levels of LDL cholesterol creates fatty deposits in the walls of the arteries, hardening and narrowing the vessels. Over time, LDL cholesterol builds up to the point where it impedes blood flow and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Cocoa polyphenols, however, have been shown to improve lipid profiles in people with elevated cholesterol levels. The double-blind, placebo controlled study published in The Journal of Nutrition involved 160 participants who were given cocoa powder with either low, medium, or high levels of cocoa polyphenols twice per day for four weeks. Compared with baseline, consuming cocoa powder had the effect of decreasing LDL (or bad) cholesterol levels and increasing HDL (or good) cholesterol. The degree of improvement in these results were relative to the amount of cocoa polyphenols consumed; the higher the polyphenol content, the better the blood lipid profile.
Read Next: 18 Natural Ways To Lower Cholesterol Fast
5. Dark Chocolate Reduces The Risk Of Heart Disease
Since these, and other studies, revealed cocoa’s benefits for heart health in the short term, a group of scientists wondered how eating cocoa habitually over the course of many years would impact longevity.
The long term cohort study involved 470 elderly men who were free of chronic disease at the onset of the trial. One third of the participants did not consume cocoa at all, while the rest ate a median of 2.11 grams per day. Replicating the results of previous studies, researchers found that those who ate 4.2 grams of cocoa each day (the equivalent of 10 grams of dark chocolate) had consistently lower blood pressure than those who consumed less cocoa daily.
Following up after 15 years, they determined that eating cocoa-containing products was inversely associated with a 45% to 50% lower risk of cardiovascular death, as well as death from all causes. While reduced cardiovascular mortality could be attributed to cocoa’s blood pressure lowering effects, it is believed that its high antioxidant content may have also helped to prevent other illnesses like pulmonary disease and cancer.
6. Dark Chocolate Protects & Nourishes The Skin
Because pure cocoa is exceptionally rich in flavanol antioxidants, eating it offers a delectable way to protect the skin from the inside out.
The consumption of dark chocolate that is high in flavanols significantly protects the skin from UV light, according to a paper published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Split into two groups, the subjects were randomly assigned to consume either high flavanol dark chocolate (600 mg of flavanols per 20 gram portion) or low flavanol chocolate (30 mg of flavanols per 20 grams) once a day for 12 weeks. Compared with baseline, the high flavanol group more than doubled the amount of UVB ray exposure required to cause a sunburn. The low flavanol group, on the other hand, did not experience the same benefit, which indicates that it is the flavanols in cocoa that provide natural protection from the sun’s harmful rays.
In addition to its photo protective properties, high flavanol cocoa can help keep skin structures healthy. In a German study from 2006, consuming the equivalent of 326 mg per day increased blood flow in skin tissues, boosted skin hydration, lowered trans epidermal water loss, improved skin density and thickness, and made skin smoother and less rough and scaly after just 12 weeks.
7. Dark Chocolate Is Brain Food
Not only do flavanols in cocoa improve blood circulation throughout the body, they also have a beneficial effect on blood flow in the brain.
In healthy, young volunteers, consuming 150 mg of flavanol-rich chocolate for 5 days increased cerebral blood flow during cognitive tasks, according to a 2006 study. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity and cerebral blood flow, those who consumed flavanols had a significant increase in blood oxygenation in active brain regions, as well as improved blood flow and volume in key areas of the brain.
Since cocoa flavanols can help keep the brain healthy and working optimally, researchers next explored its impact on elderly people with mild cognitive impairments in a study published in Hypertension. Split into three groups, subjects consumed either high flavanol (990 mg), intermediate flavanol (520 mg) and low flavanol (45 mg) cocoa each day for 8 weeks. Eating cocoa resulted in significantly higher scores in verbal fluency tests, and faster time to completion for visual attention and cognitive task switching in both the high and intermediate flavanol groups.
How To Enjoy Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is an acquired taste, especially if you are used to the sweetness of milk chocolate candy bars. Because it does not contain dairy and has a higher percentage of cocoa, dark chocolate is notably deep, rich, savory, and bitter.
If you do not like the taste of dark chocolate, try placing a small piece in your mouth. Chewing it releases some of the bitterness, so let it melt on your tongue. Good quality dark chocolate will feel velvety, and as it melts, will release its complex flavors slowly to soften the astringency of the cocoa solids. You can also ease your way into a higher cocoa content by starting at 55% and working your way up to 70%.
Another way to enjoy dark chocolate is to pair it with complimentary foods. It is a delicious addition to cheese, nut, and fruit plates. It also helps balance out sweet wines and black coffee. If you need more sweetness, add a drop of honey, molasses, or balsamic vinegar on to each square. The tartness can also be masked by mixing it up into a smoothie, like this peanut butter banana blend.
Where To Buy Dark Chocolate
To ensure the dark chocolate you purchase is of the highest quality and enriched with antioxidants, only purchase brands with 70% or more cocoa solids. Cocoa solids should be listed first in the ingredient list; avoid bars that include dairy, vegetable oils, or artificial flavors. You’ll also want to steer clear of “dutched” or alkalized cocoa, a process that improves flavor but halves the phytonutrient content. And lastly, to ensure your chocolate bar isn’t produced with child labor, only support brands that are fair trade and organic.
Here are some recommended dark chocolate products that meet our nutritional and ethical requirements:
Alter Eco makes a 85% cocoa dark chocolate that contains just four ingredients: cocoa beans, cocoa butter, raw cane sugar, and vanilla beans.
Endangered Species is an 88% cocoa chocolate made with chocolate liquor, cane sugar, soy lecithin, and vanilla. For each bar sold, the company donates 10% of its profits to organizations that protect at-risk wildlife and habitats.
Wild Foods offers a raw cocoa powder that can be used for smoothies and shakes.