Health benefits, nutrition and how much to eat
Dark chocolate is rich in minerals, such as iron, magnesium and zinc. The cocoa in dark chocolate also contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which may have several health benefits.
Chocolate comes from cocoa, a plant rich in minerals and antioxidants. Commercial milk chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk and small amounts of cocoa. On the other hand, dark chocolate contains much more cocoa and less sugar than milk chocolate.
In this article, we explore some of the potential health benefits of dark chocolate. We also cover nutritional information, risks and considerations, and how much to eat.
The percentage of cocoa indicated on the chocolate refers to the percentage of all the ingredients that the cocoa plant composes. This means that a dark chocolate product with a higher percentage of cocoa may contain a greater amount of nutrients that provide its benefits.
These beneficial compounds may include:
It is important to note that cocoa
Cocoa has been associated with health benefits that
- reduce free radicals
- improve blood circulation
- lower blood pressure
- reduce “bad cholesterol”
- reduce inflammation
- reduce insulin resistance
- improve the brain’s ability to make new connections between neurons
- increase the diversity of the microbiome
Dark chocolate contains several compounds that have antioxidant properties, such as flavanols and polyphenols. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidation stress.
oxidative stress refers to the damage that excessive amounts of free radicals can inflict on cells and tissues in the body.
oxidative stress contributes to the natural aging process. Over time, the effects of oxidation stress can also contribute to the development of various diseases,
Eating dark chocolate regularly can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease. Some of the compounds in dark chocolate, particularly the flavanols, affect two major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
We discuss the potential benefits of dark chocolate for these two risk factors and others below:
The flavanols in dark chocolate stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate or widen, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure.
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Dark chocolate also contains certain compounds, such as polyphenols and theobromine, that can lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the body and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. Doctors often refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad cholesterol” and HDL cholesterol as “good cholesterol”.
HDL cholesterol helps reduce the total amount of cholesterol in the blood while LDL cholesterol can narrow blood vessels.
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Inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response to germs and other harmful substances. However, chronic inflammation can damage cells and tissues and can increase the risk of certain health problems, including type 2 diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer.
Dark chocolate contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in the body.
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The study authors concluded that more studies are needed to assess the optimal amounts of dark chocolate to use to treat people with diabetes.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells in the body stop responding to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance can lead to abnormally high blood glucose levels, which can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Eating dark chocolate may improve brain function and help prevent neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
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A 2016 study identified a positive association between regular chocolate consumption and cognitive performance. However, the researchers collected data from surveys and had to rely on self-reported chocolate consumption, so they were unable to draw firm conclusions from the results.
Eating dark chocolate may benefit the gut microbiome, which may aid digestion.
A 2022 South Korean study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that dark chocolate consumption was associated with increased gut microbiome diversity.
Their research findings also suggest that consuming 85% dark chocolate may have a positive correlation with mood. The researchers attributed this benefit to the increased diversity of the microbiome, which can affect mood through the gut-brain axis.
The health benefits of dark chocolate come primarily from the flavanols found in cocoa solids.
However, the flavanol content varies between dark chocolate products. Processing methods also differ between manufacturers, which can affect the flavanol content of chocolate.
There is no legal obligation for chocolate manufacturers to declare the flavanol content of their products. However, dark chocolate products with a higher percentage of cocoa solids should generally contain more flavanols.
Although dark chocolate contains beneficial antioxidants and minerals, it is usually also high in sugar and fat, making it a calorie-dense food.
Dark chocolate contains fat in the form of cocoa butter, which consists mostly of unhealthy saturated fats.
People should therefore try to limit their consumption of dark chocolate to avoid consuming too many calories, fats and sugars.
In general, dark chocolate contains less sugar than milk chocolate and white chocolate. Dark chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa solids generally contains even less sugar. Sugar content varies among chocolate manufacturers, so it’s a good idea to check the nutrition label.
A recent Consumer Reports article tested several popular dark chocolate products and found that many contain high levels of lead and cadmium. Since these substances are naturally present in cocoa, their elimination has been a challenge for chocolate manufacturers.
The report found that some of the safest dark chocolates in 2022 came from Ghirardelli, Mast, Taza and Valrhona.
Chocolate manufacturers are not required to declare the flavanol content of their products. As a result, it’s unclear how much dark chocolate a person should eat to maximize its health benefits.
The studies in this article typically used 20-30g of dark chocolate per day. Dark chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa solids generally contains less sugar but more fat. More cocoa also means more flavanols, so it’s best to choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids or more.
Dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants and minerals, and it generally contains less sugar than milk chocolate.
Some research suggests that dark chocolate may help reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, increase gut microbiome diversity, and improve brain function.
Those interested in adding dark chocolate to their diet should keep in mind that it is high in fat and calories, so moderation is key.