You may be surprised to know that chocolate could actually be considered a superfood; in fact, chocolate is one of the best sources of antioxidants in the world!
Research has shown that good-quality dark chocolate (anything above 70% cocoa solids) can actually improve your health and has some seriously impressive nutritionals!
Here, we explore the top 5 science-supported health benefits of dark chocolate; but first, let’s look at what makes dark chocolate so special…
What Are the Main Differences Between Dark, Milk and White Chocolate?
Dark chocolate contains between 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar. Whereas milk chocolate contains anywhere from 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk in some form, and sugar. Though dark chocolate should not contain milk, there may be traces of milk from cross-contamination during processing, as the same machinery is often used to produce milk and dark chocolate. Lower quality chocolates may also add fat, vegetable oils, or artificial colors or flavours. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
Where Does Chocolate Come From?
While chocolate (unfortunately) isn’t quite a salad, the chocolate bars we all know and love begin their life in the form of a cacao pod bigger than the size of your hand! Growing from the cocoa tree, the seeds (or beans as we know them) are extracted from the pod, fermented, dried and then roasted. The shells of the beans are then separated from the meat, also known as cacao nibs. You may recognise these little nibs as they are now sold as a stand-alone health-food available in most supermarkets. The nibs are then ground into a liquid called chocolate liquor, and separated from the fatty portion, or cocoa butter. The liquor is further refined to produce the cocoa solids and chocolate that we eat. Once the nibs are removed, the cocoa bean is then ground into cocoa powder that is used in baking or beverages.
Before we uncover the top 5 proven health benefits of dark chocolate, here’s a handy jargon buster to get to grips with some of the terminology:
|Flavonoids||Flavonoids are plant compounds that are found in almost all fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. As with other phytonutrients, flavonoids are powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits|
|Flavanols||Flavanols are a type of polyphenol, a group of natural compounds found in plants. Many polyphenols, including Flavanols, play a protective role for plants. So when we consume them, they’re thought to have a protective or antioxidant effect for us too.|
|Polyphenols||Polyphenols are micronutrients that we get through certain plant-based foods. They’re packed with antioxidants and potential health benefits. It’s thought that polyphenols can improve or help treat digestive issues, weight management, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease.|
|Antioxidants||Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals (unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental and other pressures). Antioxidants are sometimes called “free-radical scavengers.” The sources of antioxidants can be natural or artificial.|
|Free Radicals||Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that attack your cells, much like the way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. If you’ve ever seen an avocado turn brown once its been sliced, then you’ve witnessed free radicals at work. Wrinkles and sun damage on the skin are also signs of free radical damage.|
1. Powerful Source of Antioxidants:
Dark chocolate is bursting with organic, biologically active compounds that function as antioxidants. These include flavanols and polyphenols, amongst others. A particular study found that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity than any other fruits tested. This included well-known ‘superfoods’ acai berries and blueberries! (4).
2. Rich in Important Nutrients:
Good quality dark chocolate (with a minimum cocoa content of 70 or above) can actually be very nutritious as it is bursting with minerals, antioxidants and also contains a good amount of soluble fibre.
100g of good quality dark chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa) contains:
- 11 grams of fiber
- 67% of the RNI (Reference Nutrient Intake) for iron
- 58% of the RNI for magnesium
- 89% of the RNI for copper
- 98% of the RNI for manganese
It also contains good amounts of potassium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.
However, 100 grams is a considerably large amount and not a suggested serving size. Along with all of the above listed nutrients, 100g also racks up at 600 calories with moderate amounts of sugar. Therefore, dark chocolate is best consumed in moderation.
Dark chocolate also boasts an impressive fatty acid profile, with most of the fats being monounsaturated and saturated, along with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
Dark chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine along with other natural stimulants which may help to improve mood and provide a boost of energy. Caffeine is found in cocoa solids but not in cocoa butter, so you can therefore establish the amount of caffeine in chocolate by the cocoa content and darkness. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate, the more caffeine it will contain per gram.
Dark chocolate has around 25mg of caffeine in a 50g serving. Milk chocolate is significantly lower with less than 10mg of caffeine per 50g serving. As white chocolate is made using only cocoa butter and zero cocoa solids, it contains no caffeine at all (13).
3. May Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Risk:
The compounds in dark chocolate have been shown to improve a number of important risk factors for cardiovascular disease and appear to be highly protective. One study in particular found that the compounds in cocoa and dark chocolate significantly reduced oxidised LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein, commonly known as “bad” cholesterol) in men. It also increased HDL (High Density Lipoprotein, AKA “good” cholesterol) and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol (1).
Oxidised LDL is a harmful type of cholesterol that is produced in the body when LDL is damaged during chemical reactions with free radicals. When this happens, the LDL particles become reactive, leading to inflammation that’s capable of damaging other tissues in the body, and can lead to disease, organ damage, and increases the risk of heart attack or stroke (12). When you consider that cocoa is bursting with an abundance of powerful antioxidants, it makes sense that it can lower oxidised LDL. When the antioxidants present in cocoa enter the bloodstream, they protect the body against oxidative damage (17, 19, 25).
In fact, several long-term observational studies have shown a significant improvement:
- In a study of 470 elderly males, cocoa was shown to reduce the risk of death from heart disease by a staggering 50% over a 15 year period. (2)
- A separate study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57% (7).
- Another study found that eating chocolate two or more times per week reduced the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32% (6).
However, since the biological process is known (lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL), it is plausible that regularly eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease. Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes (11). Long term regular consumption of dark chocolate could therefore potentially cause significantly less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries, resulting in a lower risk of heart disease.
4. May Help to Improve Brain Function:
The benefits don’t stop there; Dark chocolate may also improve your brain function and elevate your mood!
There has been extensive research highlighting the positive effects that cocoa and dark chocolate can have on mood, both short term and long term. Some studies have reported evidence of an antidepressant effect and shown that consuming chocolate can help to improve a negative mood and increase ‘feel-good’ hormones such as serotonin (10, 16, 18, 20, 24).
Our brains use a lot of oxygen (around 20% of our bodies total intake) which makes them highly susceptible to free radical damage. However, antioxidants protect brain cells by neutralising free radical damage and preventing brain cells from ageing prematurely (3).
One particular study of healthy volunteers found that eating high-flavanol cocoa for five days improved blood flow to the brain (9).
Cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment or neurodegenerative disease. It may also improve verbal fluency and several risk factors for disease (5)
Additionally, cocoa contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason why it can improve brain function in the short term (22).
5. May Lower Blood Pressure and Improve Blood Flow
The many flavanols present in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium (the lining of all blood vessels, such as arteries and veins), to produce Nitric Oxide (NO)(21).
Nitric Oxide is a compound in the body which sends signals to blood vessels to relax and widen, which lowers the resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure. NO also stimulates the release of certain hormones such as human growth hormone and insulin. NO supplements are a category of health supplements you may recognise, the main two being L-citruline and L-arganine, which are both present in many pre-workout products.
Many controlled studies show that cocoa and dark chocolate can improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, although the effects are generally mild (8, 14, 23).
The Take Home:
Always opt for high-quality dark chocolate where possible. Anything with a cocoa content of 70% or higher is a safe bet. Dark chocolates generally contains some sugar, but the amounts are usually minimal and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. Check the label if you are watching your sugar intake. Have a square or two after dinner and try to really savour them, letting it melt in your mouth to enjoy the full flavour and feel satisfied without overdoing it. Mix it up with cocoa-rich nut butters such as our 100% natural and vegan Rawtella and Cacao Almond Butter, packed with the health benefits of both dark chocolate and heart-healthy fats from the nuts – not only nutritious, but incredibly delicious and perfect spread on toast, stirred into porridge or simply added to a shake or smoothie for a boost of antioxidants. They’re both also wonderful baking ingredients and can be used in a whole host of delicious recipes, even savoury… Yes, savoury! Try our mind-blowing chicken mole recipe with a mouth-watering hit of richness coming from the Cacao Almond Butter. Trust us on this one!
If you want to reap the benefits of cocoa minus the calories, try preparing a hot chocolate using cocoa powder, a little vanilla extract and milk or unsweetened plant milk. If you have a sweet tooth, use a small amount of natural sweetener such as agave or stevia, or try our delicious zero calorie, zero sugar syrups for a touch of sweetness without it affecting your macros…or your waistline!
Our Top 3 For Cocoa Benefits:
- Baba, Seigo & Natsume, Midori & Yasuda, Akiko & Tamura, Takaaki & Osakabe, Naomi & Kanegae, Minoru & Kondo, Kazuo. (2007). Plasma LDL and HDL Cholesterol and Oxidized LDL Concentrations Are Altered in Normo- and Hypercholesterolemic Humans after Intake of Different Levels of Cocoa Powder. The Journal of nutrition. 137. 1436-41. 10.1093/jn/137.6.1436.
- Buijsse, Brian & Feskens, Edith & Kok, F.J. & Kromhout, Daan. (2006). Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: The Zutphen Elderly Study. Archives of internal medicine. 166. 411-7. 10.1001/.411.
- Carrieri, Maria & Vinson, Joe. (2013). Cocoa and Chocolate: Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Beneficial Brain Effects. 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0_29.
- Crozier, Stephen & Preston, Amy & Hurst, William & Payne, Mark & Mann, Julie & Hainly, Larry & Miller, Debra. (2011). Cacao seeds are a “Super Fruit”: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products. Chemistry Central journal. 5. 5. 10.1186/1752-153X-5-5.
- Desideri, Giovambattista & Kwik-Uribe, Catherine & Grassi, Davide & Necozione, Stefano & Ghiadoni, Lorenzo & Mastroiacovo, Daniela & Raffaele, Angelo & Ferri, Livia & Bocale, Raffaella & Lechiara, Maria & Marini, Carmine & Ferri, Claudio. (2012). Benefits in Cognitive Function, Blood Pressure, and Insulin Resistance Through Cocoa Flavanol Consumption in Elderly Subjects With Mild Cognitive Impairment The Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study. Hypertension. 60. 794-801. 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.112.193060.
- Djoussé, Luc & Hopkins, Paul & Arnett, Donna & Pankow, James & Borecki, Ingrid & North, Kari & Ellison, Robert. (2011). Chocolate Consumption is Inversely Associated with Calcified Atherosclerotic Plaque in the Coronary Arteries: The NHLBI Family Heart Study. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland). 30. 38-43. 10.1016/j.clnu.2010.06.011.
- Djoussé, Luc & Hopkins, Paul & North, Kari & Pankow, James & Arnett, Donna & Ellison, Robert. (2011). Chocolate Consumption is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland). 30. 182-7. 10.1016/j.clnu.2010.08.005.
- Fisher, Naomi & Hughes, Meghan & Gerhard, Marie & Hollenberg, Norman. (2004). Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. Journal of hypertension. 21. 2281-6. 10.1097/01.hjh.0000084783.15238.eb.
- Francis, Susan & Head, K & Morris, Peter & Macdonald, Ian. (2006). The Effect of Flavanol-rich Cocoa on the fMRI Response to a Cognitive Task in Healthy Young People. Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology. 47 Suppl 2. S215-20. 10.1097/00005344-200606001-00018.
- Golman T, Buzzi J, Carre S. Efficacy of dark chocolate (70%) on depression in patients living in a home for the dependent elderly (EHPAD). La Revue francophone de gériatrie et de gérontologie 2007;XIV(133):136-139. 54.
- Grassi, Davide & Desideri, Giovambattista & Necozione, Stefano & Lippi, Cristina & Casale, Raffaele & Properzi, Gianfranco & Blumberg, Jeffrey & Ferri, Claudio. (2008). Blood Pressure Is Reduced and Insulin Sensitivity Increased in Glucose-Intolerant, Hypertensive Subjects after 15 Days of Consuming High-Polyphenol Dark Chocolate1-3. The Journal of nutrition. 138. 1671-6. 10.1093/jn/138.9.1671.
- Grewal, Navdeep & Thornton, Gail & Behzad, Hayedeh & Sharma, Aishwariya & Lu, Alex & Zhang, Peng & Reid, W Darlene & Scott, Alex. (2014). Accumulation of Oxidized LDL in the Tendon Tissues of C57BL/6 or Apolipoprotein E Knock-Out Mice That Consume a High Fat Diet: Potential Impact on Tendon Health. PloS one. 9. e114214. 10.1371/journal.pone.0114214.
- Heckman, Melanie & Weil, Jorge & Mejia, Elvira. (2010). Caffeine (1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine) in Foods: A Comprehensive Review on Consumption, Functionality, Safety, and Regulatory Matters. Journal of food science. 75. R77-87. 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2010.01561.x.
- Hooper, Lee & Kay, Colin & Abdelhamid, Asmaa & Kroon, Paul & Cohn, Jeffrey & Rimm, Eric & Cassidy, Aedín. (2012). Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 95. 740-51. 10.3945/ajcn.111.023457.
- MacCance, R. and Widdowson, E. (2015). McCance and Widdowson’s the composition of foods. Cambridge: Royal Soc. of Chemistry.
- Macht, Michael & Mueller, Jochen. (2007). Immediate effects of chocolate on experimentally induced mood states. Appetite. 49. 667-74. 10.1016/j.appet.2007.05.004.
- Osakabe, Naomi & Baba, Seigo & Yasuda, Aiko & Iwamoto, Tamami & Kamiyama, Masumi & Takizawa, Toshio & Itakura, Hiroshige & Kondo, Kazuo. (2001). Daily cocoa intake reduces the susceptibility of low-density lipoprotein to oxidation as demonstrated in healthy human volunteers. Free radical research. 34. 93-9. 10.1080/10715760100300091.
- Parker G, Parker I, Brotchie H. Mood state effects of chocolate. J Affect Disord. Jun 2006;92(2-3):149-159.
- Rein, Dietrich & Lotito, Silvina & Holt, Roberta & Keen, Carl & Schmitz, Harold & Fraga, Cesar. (2000). Epicatechin in Human Plasma: In Vivo Determination and Effect of Chocolate Consumption on Plasma Oxidation Status. The Journal of nutrition. 130. 2109S-14S. 10.1093/jn/130.8.2109S.
- Rose N, Koperski S, Golomb BA. Mood food: chocolate and depressive symptoms in a crosssectional analysis. Arch Intern Med. Apr 26 2010;170(8):699-703.
- Schewe, Tankred & Steffen, Yvonne & Sies, Helmut. (2008). How do dietary flavanols improve vascular function? A position paper. Archives of biochemistry and biophysics. 476. 102-6. 10.1016/j.abb.2008.03.004.
- Smit, Hendrik & Gaffan, Elizabeth & Rogers, Peter. (2004). Methylxanthines are the psycho-pharmacologically active constituents of chocolate. Psychopharmacology. 176. 412-9. 10.1007/s00213-004-1898-3.
- Taubert, Dirk & Rösen, Renate & Lehmann, Clara & Jung, Norma & Schömig, Edgar. (2007). Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association. 298. 49-60. 10.1001/jama.298.1.49.
- Yamada T, Yamada Y, Okano Y, Terashima T, Yokogoshi H. Anxiolytic effects of short- and long-term administration of cacao mass on rat elevated T-maze test. J Nutr Biochem. Dec 2009;20(12):948-955.
- Ying, W. & Vinson, Joe & Etherton, Terry & Proch, I. & Lazarus, Sheryl & Kris-Etherton, Penny. (2002). ‘Effect of cocoa powder and dark chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostataglandin concentration in humans,’. Am J Clin Nutr. 74. 596-602. 10.1093/ajcn/74.5.596.