Yes, what you’ve heard is true. Chocolate is good for you. But before you take that and run with it, keep reading.
All chocolate isn’t the same. There’s dark chocolate and milk chocolate and white chocolate (which isn’t really chocolate at all), but dark chocolate is the one with the greatest health benefits. In fact, dark chocolate is really the only one that’s healthy.
Defining Dark Chocolate
All chocolate comes from cacao beans. The cacao beans are harvested from the cacao plant and then fermented and dried. From there, the dried beans either undergo a heating and roasting process (and become cocoa) or are cold-pressed unroasted (and become cacao). Dark chocolate can be made from either cacao or cocoa, but cacao retains more of the nutrients since it’s not heated.
What sets dark chocolate apart from other kinds of chocolate is the amount of cacao or cocoa in the finished product. Although there are no official guidelines defining what makes dark chocolate “dark,” as a general rule, dark chocolate typically contains at least 70% cacao or cocoa.
Since dark chocolate health benefits come from the cacao or cocoa in it, the higher the percentage, the better the chocolate is for you. That being said, the higher the cacao or cocoa content, the more bitter the chocolate tastes as well.
There’s also caffeine in dark chocolate, and the higher the percentage of cacao or cocoa, the higher the caffeine content. Two ounces of 70% dark chocolate contain about 60 milligrams of caffeine. For comparison’s sake, that’s about the same amount of caffeine in around 4 ounces of coffee.
Dark Chocolate Benefits
Now that you know what dark chocolate is, the question “why is dark chocolate good for you?” still remains. There are a number of dark chocolate benefits and they’re pretty impressive.
It’s Antioxidant Rich
One of the most notable standouts about dark chocolate is its antioxidant composition. In fact, you can trace many dark chocolate health benefits back to the antioxidants in the chocolate.
The number of antioxidants in any food is measured using a scale called the ORAC (or oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale. Foods are ranked on this scale based on how antioxidant-rich they are; and cocoa beans are one of the highest scoring foods.
Dark chocolate contains several different antioxidant groups, including flavanols, polyphenols, and catechins. Antioxidants are important because they help neutralize unstable compounds, called free radicals, that are linked to DNA damage and cancer. Because of its antioxidant potency, dark chocolate is often classified as a cancer-fighting food.
Protects Your Heart
The compounds in dark chocolate protect your heart in several different ways. They positively affect your blood pressure, help improve your cholesterol levels, and protect the arteries from plaque buildup, which is the underlying cause of many heart attacks and strokes.
Although more research is needed to make definitive statements, two studies, one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and another published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that eating dark chocolate may help reduce blood pressure. The flavanols in the dark chocolate do this by sending signals to the endothelium, or the lining of the arteries, to produce a gas called nitric oxide. When nitric oxide is released, it triggers the arteries to relax and dilate. As a result, blood pressure goes down.
Other studies found that dark chocolate can lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (or “good”) cholesterol levels. Dark chocolate actually goes a step further than just improving lipid profiles though.
Dark chocolate specifically lowers what’s called oxidized LDL. Oxidized LDL is “bad” cholesterol that’s already reacted with free radicals. This oxidation makes the LDL itself reactive and inflammatory. Oxidized LDL is the type that damages the artery walls and causes plaque buildup.
It’s Rich in Minerals
Dark chocolate can also help you meet your mineral needs for the day. Unlike other sweet treats, which offer little more than a dose of sugar, dark chocolate contains significant amounts of several different minerals.
A single ounce of 70 to 85% dark chocolate contains:
- 25% of your daily copper
- 27% of your daily manganese
- 19% of your daily iron
- 16% of your daily magnesium
That same ounce of chocolate also offers small amounts of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, and selenium.
Of course, in addition to the minerals, there’s also a significant amount of carbs in dark chocolate. A 1-ounce serving of your typical dark chocolate candy bar contains just under 13 grams of carbohydrates. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you can find sugar-free dark chocolate that uses low or zero carbohydrate sweeteners. However, keep in mind that some of these sweeteners are artificial and may cause health problems. If you’re looking for sugar-free chocolate, choose one sweetened with natural sweeteners, like stevia or erythritol.
Keeps Your Skin Healthy
The flavanols in dark chocolate also keep your skin healthy and vibrant by increasing blood flow to the skin, which keeps it plump and young-looking. Flavanols also protect against sun damage by blocking the UVB rays of the sun and making it harder for them to cause sunburn and the resulting skin problems that accrue.
Boosts Brain Function
Your brain contains gray matter and white matter. The gray matter is where you process all information. It contains neurons that store information and memories and capillaries, which are small blood vessels that supply the brain with blood and oxygen. The white matter sends information to the gray matter.
Studies show that dark chocolate helps improve blood flow to the brain, specifically to the gray matter. This can improve cognitive performance (like critical thinking and memory) in healthy individuals, but it’s also beneficial for people who are dealing with brain disorders, such as dementia or the after-effects of a stroke.
Recently, researchers also started investigating whether dark chocolate can help improve vision or not. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 2018, researchers reported that within two hours of eating dark chocolate, study participants experienced sharper vision and were able to see targets more clearly.
Because this is one of the only studies of its kind, it’s hard to make definitive statements about this dark chocolate health benefit, but the results are promising.
Stabilizes Blood Sugar
It may seem counterintuitive that chocolate could stabilize your blood sugar, but it’s true. Researchers have found that dark chocolate can not only reduce fasting blood sugar (your blood sugar level before you’ve eaten a meal), but it can also improve insulin sensitivity (or the way your cells respond to insulin).
This is important because insulin resistance, which is the opposite of insulin sensitivity, affects more than 3 million U.S. adults per year. Insulin resistance typically doesn’t cause any symptoms, but it’s often a precursor to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, which affects even more people.
We’ll leave you with this important consideration: if you already have diabetes or blood sugar problems, it’s best to choose a dark chocolate with a higher cacao or cocoa content and little to no sugar and limit your intake to less than an ounce per day.