Health benefits of dark chocolate

The 6 main health benefits of dark chocolate

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Interest in chocolate has increased in recent years due to its potential health benefits, such as moderating oxidation processes, vascular functions, blood pressure regulation and lipid metabolism, among others.

In this post, I will show you how the health benefits of dark chocolate extend throughout your entire body!

Dark chocolate is produced from the beans of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). It is very high in antioxidants and provides a variety of health benefits. In fact, it is one of the few foods that not only tastes exquisite, but keeps you healthy at the same time. Read on to learn about the many ways in which dark chocolate helps you stay vibrant!

Dark chocolate health benefits
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Nutritional properties of dark chocolate

As I mentioned earlier, dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, and that’s where its super powers lie. Specifically, we are talking about chocolate that has at least 70% or more cocoa, since the higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants it has.

The higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants chocolate has

Cocoa contains flavanols, a type of flavonoid that is only found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavonoids are natural compounds found in plant-based foods that act as antioxidants and help counteract free radicals in the body. In fact, this study found that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than any other fruit that was studied, including blueberries and acai. Therefore, it is considered a “superfood.”

Dark chocolate also has other nutrients important to our health. Here, I’ll present a table with the nutritional content of 1 ounce of dark chocolate (with an amount of cocoa solids between 70-85%). In the table I include the most relevant nutrients, but in the above link you will find the complete nutritional data for dark chocolate.

NutrientsAmount% Daily Value (DV) based on a 2000 calorie diet 
Calories 1688%
Protein2.2 g4%
Total fat12 g18%
Saturated fat6.9 g34%
Polyunsaturated fat0.04 g
Monounsaturated fat3.6 g
Total Carbohydrates13 g4%
Dietary fiber3.1 g12%
Sugars6.8 g
Vitamin A10.9 IU0%
Vitamin C
Vitamin D
Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)0.17 mg1%
Vitamin K2 mcg3%
Magnesium64 mg16%
Calcium20 mg2%
Iron3.3 mg19%
Potassium200 mg6%
Copper0.5 mg25%
Manganese0.5 mg27%

As you can see, dark chocolate is high in magnesium, iron, copper and manganese. In addition, it is a decent source of fiber that, as we will see, has an important contribution to gastrointestinal health.

Magnesium is involved in more than 600 reactions in your body! It helps convert energy from food, helps repair DNA, contributes to muscle movement and protein formation, and is involved in neurotransmitter regulation.

Manganese is involved in the metabolism of amino acids, cholesterol, glucose and carbohydrates, as well as in reproductive functions and immune response.

Copper, along with iron, allows the body to form red blood cells. In addition, it helps keep bones, blood vessels, nerves and immune function healthy. It also contributes to iron absorption.

How does dark chocolate benefit your health?

The cocoa tree, where chocolate comes from
The cocoa tree, where delicious chocolate comes from

Now, we will explore how this delicious food protects your health while delighting your palate. Get comfortable (and happy), because for the next few minutes, everything will be chocolate!

Dark chocolate protects against oxidative damage

Antioxidants benefit us by reducing oxidative stress and therefore, reducing the risk of developing chronic health conditions such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer

Oxidation is a process that normally occurs in the body, all the time. Oxidation occurs when a molecule, atom or ion loses an electron. This results in unpaired electrons (or free radicals), which are highly chemically reactive. You see, electrons like to be in pairs, so free radicals will scavenge throughout the body in search of other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA. Inflammation is one of the body’s responses to this type of damage.

Antioxidants prevent this free radical activity from occurring, by oxidizing themselves (a process called reduction). Usually, the body manages oxidation (that is, it can create its own antioxidants) and maintains a balance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity.

Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between these two processes. When more free radicals are present than antioxidants available to neutralize them, free radicals can begin to damage proteins, tissues and DNA in the body. Over time, if this damage remains uncontrolled, chronic health conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes can develop.

That’s where food sources of antioxidants are useful. A diet rich in antioxidants (such as those found in dark chocolate) adds more “soldiers” to the “army” and helps the body fight these daily processes, which in turn, helps prevent damage and disease.

Dark chocolate helps protect heart health

One of the best known health benefits of dark chocolate is its ability to protect heart health. For example, this study showed that regular consumption of chocolate with a high cocoa content has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system in young and healthy adults, “ improving vascular function by reducing central brachial artery pressures and promoting vascular relaxation, and thus enhancing the matching of the arterial system with the left ventricle”.

The compounds found in dark chocolate help protect and promote heart health in two main ways:

Helps lower blood pressure

According to this meta analysis, which includes 15 studies, there is “a small but significant effect on the reduction of blood pressure with cocoa products rich in flavanol compared to the control {placebo}”. Dark chocolate flavanols have been shown to support the production of nitric oxide in the endothelium (the tissue inside of blood vessels). Nitric oxide, BTW, helps to relax blood vessels and improve blood flow. The result: blood pressure decreases.

Other studies suggest that there is a link between a high intake of cocoa or chocolate (about 6 grams per day or 1-2 small squares) and a reduction in the risk of heart disease and mortality. This is possibly due in part to the decrease in blood pressure and inflammation.

Affects blood cholesterol

There is evidence that dark chocolate and cocoa can help significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) levels and total blood cholesterol. It is believed that cocoa flavan-3-ols inhibit cholesterol absorption and expression of LDL cholesterol receptors.

In addition, although this particular study was small, it found that chocolate with a high polyphenol content was effective in improving cholesterol profile associated with atherosclerosis in patients with diabetes. Apparently, it was able to increase HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) without affecting weight, inflammation markers, insulin resistance or blood glucose control. 👍

Finally, it is also suggested that platelet aggregation, a risk factor for blood clot formation, can be reduced by a mechanism that is probably due to the theobromine in dark chocolate. Theobromine is a caffeine-like cocoa substance, which also acts as a central nervous system stimulant, in addition to providing benefits to the circulatory system.

Fun fact: The term theobromine is derived from Theobroma, which in Greek means “food of the gods.” Very appropriate, since chocolate is simply divine!

Benefits of dark chocolate for brain and mental health

The health benefits of dark chocolate also extend to the brain. For example, it helps improve cognitive function and release nerve growth factors in the body. The flavonoids it contains are absorbed, penetrate and accumulate in the regions of the brain involved with learning and memory, especially in the hippocampus. In this research paper, it was demonstrated that “cocoa rich in flavanol can increase cerebral blood flow to gray matter, suggesting the potential of cocoa flavanols for the treatment of vascular insufficiency, including dementia and stroke… “

Another of the main ways in which dark chocolate affects the brain is due to its tryptophan content. Tryptophan is an amino acid necessary for the formation of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that participates in positive moods and feelings. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure.

Chocolate is also a food source of compounds that resemble anandamide, a messenger molecule that is involved in pain, depression and memory (also known as the “bliss molecule”). It is believed that these chocolate compounds, upon reaching the brain, can induce a mild, natural and temporary “high.”

Another compound found in dark chocolate is theobromine, which as we just saw, is very similar to caffeine. Both the theobromine and caffeine content in chocolate can contribute to the feeling of alertness, and tends to improve mood, concentration and memory.

Chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, as we saw above. Magnesium is a mineral that can help reduce stress by suppressing the release of its hormone: cortisol. Now we can understand why we reach for “something chocolate-y” when we want to feel better!

Helps reduce the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes

The relationship between cocoa and health
Remember that the higher the percentage of cocoa, the greater the benefits to your health

Cocoa flavonoids can improve insulin resistance in the following ways:

  • Improving tissue function inside blood vessels
  • Altering glucose metabolism
  • Reducing oxidative stress

In fact, oxidative stress is thought to be the main culprit behind insulin resistance. In addition, the relationship between insulin resistance and blood vessel function is reciprocal. That is, they help each other out, especially when it comes to glucose metabolism.

Apparently, evidence from certain studies suggests that cocoa may be useful in delaying the progression to type 2 diabetes and improving insulin resistance in metabolic syndrome.

Most research also support the fact that cocoa flavonoids have an antidiabetic effect since they can:

  • Promote insulin secretion
  • Improve insulin sensitivity in peripheral tissues
  • Exert a blood lipid lowering effect
  • Prevent oxidative and inflammatory damage associated with diabetes

However, commercial cocoa and dark chocolate products tend to be low in flavonoids and high in added sugars. Therefore, it is necessary to check the nutritional label and try to choose chocolate with a cocoa content greater than 70%. Also, make sure that it has a minimal to zero amount of added sugars. FYI, organic chocolate is generally less processed than non-organic types. Processing tends to lower the flavonoid content in these products.

Dark chocolate promotes gut health

Trillions of bacteria live in our intestines. They contribute to our immune system, digestive system, metabolism and many other essential health processes. Chocolate and cocoa are considered prebiotics rich in polyphenols. (Just in case, “probiotics” refers to the bacteria that benefits to our gut health, while “prebiotics” are the substances that “feed” these bacteria).

Cocoa affects gut bacteria ecosystems in that it mimics the effect of prebiotics and probiotics. Apparently, it helps increase the growth of “good” bacteria and inhibits the growth of “bad” bacteria. According to this study, an increase in Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli (“good” bacteria) was observed in subjects who consumed a cocoa-rich beverage. In addition, there was an apparent reduction in Clostridium histolyticum (“bad” bacteria) and in intestinal inflammation. It was also observed that “the interaction between polyphenols and intestinal microbiota is bidirectional.” This means that intestinal bacteria affect the absorption of polyphenols and, at the same time, these substances affect the growth of bacterial species in the intestine, either negatively or positively.

Finally, “good” bacteria can ferment certain fiber in dark chocolate into short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate and acetic acid. These fatty acids help defend against harmful microbes and strengthen the intestinal barrier against pathogens and invaders. In short, changes in the microbiota could positively affect the health of those who consume prebiotic substances, such as dark chocolate.

May benefit your skin’s health

Yes, you heard it correctly: despite the ancient myth that chocolate causes acne (well, there are people who are sensitive to this food and may experience flare ups, so…😬), dark chocolate has properties that can possibly protect your skin. As we have seen, chocolate is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. This in turn may help your skin in terms of:

  • Improving hydration
  • Protecting from sun damage (the number 1 enemy)
  • Helping prevent collagen deterioration

Studies suggest that cocoa flavanols contribute to endogenous photoprotection (a type of internal SPF, if you will), improve blood circulation to the skin, soften the skin’s surface and improve cosmetic hydration. An increase in the elasticity or flexibility of the skin has also been observed when consuming chocolate that’s high in antioxidants.

However, the evidence regarding the health benefits of dark chocolate for skin is still inconclusive. Therefore, it is always good to continue practicing conventional sun protection, which includes chemical and/or physical SPF, in addition to avoiding excessive exposure to the sun’s rays.

What percentage of dark chocolate is the healthiest?

The Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA) defines chocolate categories with respect to its cocoa content or cocoa solids. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more healthy flavonoids the chocolate has. To choose the healthiest dark chocolate, you have to check the label: it should ideally contain between 60 to 70 percent cocoa. These chocolates are often called bittersweet or extra bittersweet. In addition, they contain a small amount of sugar for flavor and a healthy amount of flavonoids.

Chocolate is classified as follows:

  • Unsweetened chocolate: It has 100 percent cocoa and no sugar. It is prepared with only cocoa beans, or a mixture of the beans with cocoa butter. It is sometimes considered too bitter to eat.
  • Bittersweet chocolate: Contains between 35 to 99 percent cocoa. It must contain at least 35 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk solids. Here, you will find the widest category of chocolate, including products called: bittersweet, semi-sweet, dark, extra dark or extra bittersweet.
  • Sweet Chocolate: Must have between 15 to 34 percent cocoa. In addition, it must contain at least 15 percent unsweetened chocolate and less than 12 percent milk solids. Sometimes it is also called dark chocolate, although it has a lower percentage of cocoa solids than bittersweet chocolate.
  • Milk chocolate: Contains at least 10 percent unsweetened chocolate, 12 percent dairy solids and 3.39 percent milk fat. It is the type of chocolate most commonly consumed, and although it does contain antioxidants, the content is lower than those mentioned above.

Here is an infographic with a summary of chocolate classification according to its cocoa percentage.

Classification of chocolate according to its % of cocoa

How much dark chocolate should you eat a day?

You can enjoy the benefits of dark chocolate in moderation. The most common daily recommendation is 1-2 squares (1.5 to 3 oz) of high quality organic dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa. If you consume more than that amount, you may run the risk of consuming excess calories.

Also, if you have a specific health condition, always consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

Dark chocolate is healthy!

So now you know that you can enjoy this exquisite food. As we’ve seen, chocolate is full of important antioxidants, which are necessary to keep oxidative damage and disease at bay. Remember that dark chocolate is preferable to milk chocolate, since it has more dietary fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. In addition, dark chocolate often has less sugar and added fat than milk chocolate.

Always check the food label to make sure that the added sugars are minimal and that there are no hydrogenated fats in the ingredient list. Also keep in mind what I’ve repeated over and over again: that the higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants chocolate has.

So if you suddenly get chocolate cravings, worry not. As long as your diet in general is balanced and nutritious, there’s no harm in an occasional square of dark chocolate or two! 

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