Yes, what you’ve heard is true. Chocolate is good for you. But before you take that bit of information and run with it, we have to share some bad news: all chocolate isn’t created equal. Which means milk chocolate, which is loaded with sugar and fat—especially saturated fat—is out. And so is white chocolate, which is made with cocoa butter and, honestly, not considered chocolate at all. So when we say chocolate is good for you, we’re really talking about dark chocolate. What are these dark chocolate health benefits, you ask? Keep reading to find out.
Defining Dark Chocolate
All chocolate comes from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, whose name translates literally to “cacao, food of the gods.” After harvesting, the raw seeds, or cocoa beans, are dried and fermented before being cold pressed to create cacao or roasted to create cocoa powder. Although dark chocolate can be made from either cacao or cocoa, cacao retains more of its nutrients since it hasn’t been heated.
What sets dark chocolate apart from other kinds of chocolate is the amount of cacao or cocoa in the finished product. While 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.
And since the health benefits of dark chocolate are directly related to the cocoa (or cacao) content, the best dark chocolate is the one with the highest percentage. However, that also means that the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter the chocolate.
In addition, dark chocolate contains the stimulants caffeine and theobromine—the main ingredient responsible for dog poisonings. What’s more, the higher the cacao or cocoa content, the higher the levels of both caffeine and theobromine.
For example, 2 ounces of 70% dark chocolate contains approximately 60 milligrams of caffeine—about the same amount you’d find in 4 ounces of coffee—and 450 milligrams of theobromine.
Dark Chocolate Health Benefits
Believe it or not, dark chocolate has so many documented health benefits that it’s considered by many to be a superfood. So put away your guilt, unwrap your favorite dark chocolate bar or—if you prefer less sugar and calories and more of what makes dark chocolate so good for you—pop some cacao nibs, and settle in as we explore seven of the most impressive health benefits dark chocolate has to offer.
1. It’s Rich in Antioxidants
One of the main reasons dark chocolate has been given superfood status is its high level of antioxidants. The antioxidant activity of food is measured using the oxygen radical absorbance capacity, or ORAC, scale. And it’s been found that cocoa beans are over 10% flavonoids by weight.
Flavonoids are types of polyphenols that include flavonols like quercetin as well as the flavanols (yes, we can thank chemistry for giving us two terms that are almost identical in spelling but quite different in structure) catechin and epicatechin. And the percentage of flavonoids in cocoa beans means these seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree have one of the highest concentrations of flavonoids of any food—even blueberries and acai!
Antioxidants are important because they help neutralize unstable compounds (free radicals) linked to DNA damage, which means they can help protect you from degenerative diseases like heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.
2. It Protects Your Heart
The flavonoids in dark chocolate help reduce the risk of heart disease in several ways, including by helping to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow.
In fact, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that eating dark chocolate has a positive effect on high blood pressure. And a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that dark chocolate consumption is not only effective in lowering blood pressure but can also raise levels of nitric oxide—a potent vasodilator.
Other studies have demonstrated that dark chocolate can lower LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad cholesterol) and raise HDL cholesterol (the so-called good cholesterol), which helps protect arteries from the plaque buildup that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
What’s more, the antioxidants in dark chocolate have been found to lower what’s called oxidized LDL. Oxidized LDL is LDL cholesterol that’s been damaged by coming in contact with free radicals. As you might imagine, this makes LDL itself behave like a free radical.
While there’s still some debate surrounding this topic, it’s thought that it’s actually oxidized LDL that’s responsible for damaging the walls of arteries, and that the antioxidants in dark chocolate may be useful in counteracting this effect.
3. It Has Abundant Minerals
Unlike other sweet treats, which offer little more than a dose of sugar, dark chocolate contains significant amounts of several different minerals. For example, a single ounce of dark chocolate containing 70% to 85% percent cacao has:
- 25% of your daily copper
- 27% of your daily manganese
- 19% of your daily iron
- 16% of your daily magnesium
That same ounce of dark chocolate also offers small amounts of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, and selenium.
Of course, you can’t just sit down and gorge yourself on dark chocolate and still hope to meet your weight-loss goals (if you have any) because a 1-ounce serving of your typical dark chocolate candy bar also contains just under 13 grams of carbohydrates.
However, the health benefits of dark chocolate intake are very real, so remember the old adage of everything in moderation. Or, if you’re really in need of a chocolate fix and just a little won’t do, think about adding some sugar-free and super healthy cacao nibs to your next smoothie or muesli bowl.
4. It Keeps Skin Healthy
It’s true. Dark chocolate may be just what your skin has been craving. For not only can eating chocolate increase hydration and improve blood flow, but the flavanol content can also protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.
In fact, at least one study has found that eating raw, unprocessed cocoa beans can lead to a more than doubling of the mean minimal erythema dose, or MED—the amount of UV radiation needed to produce minimal skin redness within a few hours of sun exposure—after 12 weeks.
5. It Boosts Brain Function
Your brain is made up of gray matter, which contains neurons that store information as well as capillaries, and white matter, which connects different areas of gray matter to each other.
Studies show that dark chocolate helps improve blood flow to the brain, specifically the gray matter. And this—along with the stimulant effects of caffeine and theobromine—can improve cognitive function in healthy people and also benefit individuals who are dealing with brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease or the aftermath of a stroke.
6. It Improves Vision
Recently, researchers began investigating whether dark chocolate can improve vision. And a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology found that within two hours of eating a 47-gram dark chocolate bar containing 72% cacao, participants experienced greater visual acuity and contrast sensitivity.
Because the retina contains a large number of blood vessels, the authors of the study hypothesized that the increased blood flow induced by the cocoa flavanols may be responsible for the improvements in vision.
7. It Stabilizes Blood Sugar
It may seem counterintuitive that chocolate could help stabilize blood sugar, but it’s true. In fact, studies have found that dark chocolate not only reduces fasting blood sugar but also improves insulin sensitivity—the body’s sensitivity to the effects of insulin.
This is important because insulin resistance, which is the opposite of insulin sensitivity, can lead to both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, which affect an estimated 100 million adults in the United States.
However, a meta-analysis in the journal Nutrients found that people who ate two to three 30-gram servings of dark chocolate a week had a lower risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, prompting researchers to suggest that eating one to six servings of dark chocolate a week may help prevent all three of these serious conditions.
In a world where so many things we enjoy are bad for us, it’s nice to know that one of the tastiest treats of all might actually be something that’s good for us.
So rejoice, chocolate lovers!
But be sure to stick to dark chocolate. And remember that the higher the cacao or cocoa content, the lower the sugar content and the healthier the chocolate.