If you’ve got a sweet tooth, dark chocolate is a healthier substitute for sugary treats. Plus, there are dark chocolate health benefits! The average American consumes about 12 pounds of chocolate each year, so I want to help you make the smart, healthier choice. That way you can have your chocolate without guilt, and gain the health benefits of dark chocolate too! Here’s a quick overview of dark chocolate and the health benefits you can get from it:
History of Dark Chocolate’s Health Benefits
Dark chocolate — or its most important ingredient, cacao — has been used to promote health for thousands of years. Civilizations as old as 1000BC would ferment cacao seeds and mix them into liquid to consume during social gatherings and religious rituals.
The Mayans used cacao as a remedy to boost energy and improve kidney and GI function. The Aztecs reportedly drank cacao beverages prior to war, as they believed it made them strong and energetic. Cacao was so valuable to the Aztecs that they used it as currency.
In the modern world, the Kunda Indians, who live on an island chain off the coast of Panama, regularly drink a cacao beverage made from indigenous cacao plants. The Kunda are well known for having low rates of hypertension and low rates of age-related rise in blood pressure.
Dark Chocolate Health Benefits
Research suggests that dark chocolate has beneficial effects on blood pressure, lipids (like cholesterol and triglycerides), and inflammation.
The polyphenol epicatechin is believed to be responsible for the main health benefits of cacao. Scientists believe that dark chocolate may may enhance the action of nitric oxide (which increases blood flow) and improve mitochondrial function (mitochondria are the energy producers of our cells).
Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are the compounds that can protect your body the damage caused by from pollution, radiation, and harmful chemicals. 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. This is why dark chocolate is often considered one of the top antioxidant foods.
The total flavanol and polyphenol content (as well as antioxidant activity content) of dark chocolate and cocoa powder is greater than that found in superfruits like acai, cranberry, blueberry, and pomegranate.
How about cancer prevention? That tasty dark chocolate you love may also help you ward off cancer! One of dark chocolate’s health benefits is its potential as a cancer-fighting food.
According to the American Cancer Institute:
“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.'”
Studies have also shown that dark chocolate’s 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.
Dark chocolate is also good for your brain. Ingestion of flavanol-rich cacao is associated with increased blood flow to your brain. Studies suggest that cocoa flavanols may be beneficial in conditions with reduced cerebral blood flow, like dementia and stroke.
Which Dark Chocolate Should You Eat?
Not all chocolate (or even all dark chocolate) is created equally! First off, throw out the milk chocolate; it doesn’t contain significant amounts of epicatechin. White “chocolate” is even worse than milk chocolate. White chocolate is not really chocolate at all, because it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids, only cocoa butter.
When it comes to dark chocolate, you want as much cacao content as possible. Basically, the higher the cacao, the more the epicatechin (and the more dark chocolate health benefits) you’ll ingest.
At a minimum, look for dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao, and generally speaking, higher is better. Keep in mind that dark chocolate bars contain varying amounts of added sugar. So, read labels carefully, and look for brands that contain less than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Ideally you should look for dark chocolate that’s created from fairly-traded or organic cacao beans. You definitely want cacao to be the main ingredient in your dark chocolate choice.
The addition of whole nuts to a dark chocolate bar can be an added health booster, but watch out for unhealthy additions like marshmallows and caramel. Those unhealthy ingredients will mitigate the benefits of the dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate isn’t as high in sugar as many other chocolate varieties, but if you’re diabetic or just looking to lower your sugar intake, you can find dark chocolate bars sweetened with stevia and other natural sweeteners.