Most health benefits from chocolate aren’t found in chocolate found at the drugstore, supermarket, and health food store. Sorry, but many dark chocolate varieties don’t make the grade.
The process that turns beans grown from the cacao tree into packaged chocolate bars can destroy naturally occurring antioxidants that give chocolate its health benefits. Adding other ingredients (including sugar) further downgrade chocolate’s health status. Unlike milk chocolate, dark chocolate contains little or no milk solids. Regardless of what variety you buy, you’ll likely see a number on the bar such as “55% cacao.” “Cacao” suggests a more natural product than “cocoa,” but there’s no complete agreement about the terms.
“In some cases, there are important differences between such products,” says Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD. “At other times, the only difference may be the marketing lingo chosen by the manufacturers.” But a higher percentage of cacao or cocoa doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier chocolate bar (though it can suggest fewer other ingredients, including sugar). “The percentage of cacao, cocoa or dark chocolate on a candy bar tells you how much combined cocoa powder and cocoa butter are present,” says McCulloch, who notes the actual amounts are proprietary.
Cacao percentages aside, marketers have capitalized on the dark chocolate health trend with meaningless terms. “Many chocolates are tagged with all kinds of marketing words,” says the website Healthy Eater. “Artisan, hand-crafted, fine chocolate. These are opinions and cannot be tested. Some chocolates are labelled gluten-free – which is odd as chocolate never contained gluten.”
Case in point: dutching is a process that treats chocolate with alkali (called alkalization) that can reduce the bitterness in dark chocolate. Anyone who’s tasted dark chocolate knows its bitter aftertaste can be unpleasant. Alkalization can reduce that bitterness, but at a health cost — dutching significantly reduces the antioxidants in dark chocolate. Avoid dark chocolate that says “cocoa processed with alkali” on the label.
How to Find the Right Dark Chocolate
What should you look for then? Among the factors that determine healthy dark chocolate include:
- At least 60–70% cacao: higher is better, but will sometimes yield more bitter chocolate. If you’ve ever tasted 90% or higher chocolate, you know what I’m talking about.
- No refined sugars: you can find many good dark chocolate bars sweetened with stevia, erythritol, monk fruit, and other natural sweeteners that don’t carry sugar’s damaging health impact.
- Fewer ingredients: chocolate liquor, cacao, or cocoa should be the first ingredient.
- Raw: roasting beans at high temperatures can destroy enzymes and lower cocoa’s antioxidants.
- Organic: this guarantees no pesticides and genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. Certificating a food organic costs money, so some high-end manufacturers might not label their chocolate organic even though it is. Always ask if you’re unsure.
- Beans sourced from small farms and co-ops rather than the bulk market: look for the Fair Trade label.
A good dark chocolate bar doesn’t need all of those qualities, but more is better.
Nutrients in Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has been well-studied for its health benefits. The right varieties provide plenty of them and — let’s be honest — few foods delight quite as well as chocolate. Among those benefits, dark chocolate can improve nitric oxide, a signalling molecule that regulates vascular tone and blood flow to your brain, heart, and genitals. Dark chocolate can also optimize your mitochondria, the little energy plants within your cells.
Many of those and other dark chocolate health benefits come from polyphenols, the primary antioxidants in unfermented cocoa beans. They include flavanols, proanthocyanidins, and anthocyanins. Flavanols are the most-studied compounds in cocoa. One of those flavanols is epicatechin, which also gives green tea its health benefits. Manufacturing dark chocolate retains epicatechin, yet milk chocolate retains very little epicatechin. The more heavily processed chocolate becomes, the more it loses the antioxidants found in cacao or cocoa.
Good quality chocolate also comes loaded with other nutrients. A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate (with 70–85% cocoa or cacao) has 11 grams of fibre, which can reduce insulin resistance and your risk for type 2 diabetes. That same amount contains 58% of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for magnesium, a calming mineral that also contributes to more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate things like blood glucose and blood pressure. Dark chocolate also contains zinc, selenium, potassium, and manganese.
While the health benefits of cacao go back at least 3,000 years, science has finally caught up. Epidemiological and clinical studies show these and other nutrients in dark chocolate can improve blood pressure, lipid levels, inflammation, and much more.
7 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate finds that sweet spot (pun intended) of being a true “superfood” that also tastes delicious. Among its benefits, the right amount of healthy dark chocolate included within a healthy diet can:
1. Lower blood pressure.
One study gave 60 participants with hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes either 25 grams of dark or white chocolate over eight weeks. Dark chocolate improved triglyceride levels and blood pressure. White chocolate eaters saw no improvements.
2. Improve insulin sensitivity.
One study among 1,153 people found that chocolate could improve liver enzymes and protect against the insulin resistance that, left unchecked, can develop into type 2 diabetes.
3. Boost mood and cognition.
Most studies evaluated in one systematic review found chocolate could improve your mood or attenuate a negative mood. That same review found cocoa could enhance how your brain functions. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why chocolate makes you feel better, but does it matter?
4. Protect against oxidative stress.
When dangerous free radicals overtake your body’s antioxidant defence, a dangerous, disease-triggering condition called oxidative stress can result. Antioxidants in dark chocolate can help your body better manage those free radicals. One study found that cocoa powder and dark chocolate had the equivalent or higher amounts of antioxidants compared with blueberry, pomegranate, and other fruit powders and juices.
5. Lower inflammation.
Cocoa flavanols are strongly anti-inflammatory. That’s important because chronic inflammation — a low-grade, oftentimes-silent, potentially deadly inflammation — contributes to nearly every disease on the planet.
6. Support heart health.
Dark chocolate’s nitric oxide boost can improve blood flow to your heart, and one meta-analysis found that chocolate could reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. At least in moderation —researchers recommended eating less than 100 grams per week. Higher amounts pack a lot of sugar and calories, which could negate chocolate’s health benefits.
7. Help you lose weight.
Flavanols can help reduce the oxidative stress and inflammation that forces your body to hold on to weight. Dark chocolate can also reduce your appetite by modulating hunger hormones like ghrelin. Chocolate promotes well-being, which means you maintain a better mindset to lose weight.
Here’s the (pun intended) dark side. Those nutrients in dark chocolate come at a cost; namely, calories. A four-ounce chocolate bar packs about 600 calories. Calories matter, but hormones matter far more. I’m more concerned with added sugar in chocolate bars that can mess with your blood sugar and insulin levels. Instead, look for dark chocolate sweetened with natural sweeteners like stevia.
A little dark chocolate can be healthy, but too much can have the opposite effect. Ideally, stick with two ounces or less as one serving. Keep in mind most bars contain several servings. “I’d recommend you get the darkest, most delicious kind you can find, with a label that says at least 60 percent cocoa, and enjoy an ounce or two a few times a week,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. Good advice.
If moderation becomes a struggle, break off one serving and give the rest away. Alternately, visit the best chocolatier you can afford, ask for the lowest-sugar/ highest-cacao they sell, and purchase a small amount. And savour it. Really take the time to taste that chocolate rather than scarf it down while you’re working on a mid-afternoon budget sheet. After all, pleasure is its own nutrient. And the right dark chocolate delivers pleasure in spades.