Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
While chocolate is considered to be unhealthy due to its sugar content which adds to unwanted body fat and causes tooth decay, its elder brother, dark chocolate, is packed with nutrients that can have a positive effect on one’s health.
Dark chocolate is made from the seeds of Theobroma cacao tree and is considered one of the best sources of antioxidants in the world. However, its taste is a bit bitter and therefore it’s not as popular as the regular processed and highly sweetened chocolate that has less to none health benefits.
Dark chocolate has a bitter taste, because of the higher cocoa content. Chocolate makers try to cover this taste with various processes like alkalizing, fermenting, roasting and adding milk and/or sugar. All these processes can destroy the healthy flavonoids, change human body’s ability to use them or nullify their health properties with the unhealthy additives.
In case of milk chocolate, studies have found that proteins in milk hamper the absorption of antioxidants in cocoa because milk seems to bind itself to the flavonoids in chocolate making them unavailable to body. Therefore milk chocolate is not a good source of antioxidants.
In case of white chocolate, it’s even worse than milk chocolate since it’s not even chocolate in itself because it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids. It contains only cocoa butter.
To get all the health benefits of chocolate, one should eat small amounts of minimally processed dark chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa or higher.
Dark Chocolate Health Benefits
Loaded with Nutrients
If a person takes care of buying quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content and no sugar or butter, it’s very much nutritious. It’s loaded with minerals and contains a significant amount of soluble fiber.
Great Source of Antioxidants
The antioxidant activity of foods is measured in ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity).
Researchers set a group of free radicals (unhealthy) against a food sample and examine how well the antioxidants in the food can “defuse” the free radicals.
The biological significance of ORAC values is arguable because it’s measured in a test tube and may not have the same action as that in the body.
However, it should be noted that raw, untreated cocoa beans fall in the category of the highest scoring foods that have yet been tested.
Dark chocolate is rich in organic compounds like catechins, flavonoids, polyphenols and many others that are potent antioxidants. In fact, the amount of flavonoids and polyphenols in dark chocolate is higher than that in wine and tea.
A study revealed that dark chocolate and cocoa had more antioxidant action and higher amounts of flavanols (a kind of flavonoids) and polyphenols than all other fruits tested, which included acai berries, goji berries and blueberries.
Increases HDL and Stops Oxidation of LDL
Dark chocolate can reduce many critical risk factors for heart disease.
A controlled study showed that cocoa powder remarkably reduces oxidation of LDL cholesterol in men and also elevates HDL and reduced total LDL in those with high cholesterol.
Oxidation of LDL is a process wherein the bad cholesterol reacts with free radicals due to which the LDL molecule itself becomes reactive and gains the capability of damaging tissues like the lining of arteries.
Because of antioxidants in abundant amount in cocoa, it naturally reduces oxidized LDL. These antioxidants get into one’s bloodstream and prevent the oxidative damage to the lipoproteins.
Cocoa butter in dark chocolate contains oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat which is heart-healthy and is also found in olive oil), palmitic acid and stearic acid in equal amounts. Although palmitic and stearic acids are saturated fats, research shows that stearic acid seems to have no effect on cholesterol i.e. it doesn’t increase or reduce it. Although palmitic acid in dark chocolate can increase cholesterol levels, thankfully it makes only a small part of the fat content in dark chocolate; plus, there are a lot of great phytonutrients in dark chocolate that counterbalance palmitic acid.
In a 2009 research published in Southern Medical Journal, scientists found that only consumption of dark chocolate only for one week improved lipid profiles and reduced platelet reactivity for women as well as men and reduced inflammation only in women.
Reduces Insulin Resistance
Dark chocolate can also lower insulin resistance which is one more common risk factor for several diseases including diabetes and heart disease.
May Lower the Risk of Heart Disease
Since the ingredients in dark chocolate seem to be extremely protective against oxidation of LDL, this should result in much less cholesterol accumulated in the arteries in the long term and thus reducing the risk of heart disease. Actually, many long-term observational researches reveal a pretty dramatic improvement.
A study conducted on 470 senior men showed that cocoa lowered the risk of death from heart disease by an enormous 50% over a period of 15 years, whereas another research revealed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times a week reduced the heart disease risk by 57%. But eating chocolate less often showed no effect. However, since the studies were observational, it can’t be said definitely that the risk was reduced by dark chocolate.
Nevertheless, because the biological process is known (oxidized LDL and lower blood pressure), it is believable that eating dark chocolate regularly may lower the risk of heart disease.
May Prevent Stroke
Flavonoids in dark chocolate such as epicatechin are known to offer protection against stroke. Nerve cells of those who consume dark chocolate are less vulnerable to a stroke as compared to those who don’t consume dark chocolate.
May Ward off Cancer
Dark chocolate is potentially a cancer-fighting food. As per the American Cancer Institute, dark chocolate being rich in flavonoids may play a role in cancer prevention according to researchers though more rigorous studies need to be done.
Cure for Anemia
Dark chocolate can also cure anemia with the goodness of its flavonoid content and thereby can treat those with a poor diet.
May Enhance Brain Function
Dark chocolate can even improve your brain function.
A study done on healthy subjects revealed that eating cocoa with high flavanol content for five days enhanced blood flow to the brain. Elderly people with impaired mental condition have also been found to have their cognitive function remarkably improved. Cocoa also may improve verbal fluency.
Plus, cocoa contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine due to which it may be able to improve brain function.
Stress is the root cause of not only mental problems but even physical problems and one should keep away from it as much as possible. Dark chocolate can reduce stress because it contains ingredients that promote the production of endorphins by brain cells. Endorphins are known to elevate mood.
May Prevent Sun Damage to the Skin
Bioactive ingredients in dark chocolate may be great even for one’s skin. Flavanols are known to provide protection against sun damage, enhance blood flow towards the skin and enhance skin hydration and density.
The minimum amount of UVB rays needed to cause redness on the skin after exposure of 24 hours is called MED or minimal erythemal dose. A study done on 30 people found that the MED became more than double after eating dark chocolate with high flavanol content for 12 weeks.
Thus if someone is going to have a beach vacation, carrying a lot of dark chocolate on the vacation is a good idea.
Healthy for Hair
Dark chocolate has many health benefits for hair too. It promotes blood flow to the scalp and thereby promotes healthy, youthful locks and also reduces hair loss.
May Help Lowering Blood Pressure and Improve Blood Flow
Flavanol in dark chocolate can stimulate the inner lining of arteries (endothelium) to produce nitric oxide (NO). NO, besides doing many other things, sends signals to the arteries to relax because of which resistance to the blood flow is reduced and thereby blood pressure is reduced too.
It has been found in several controlled studies that cocoa and dark chocolate can enhance blood flow and reduce blood pressure, although these effects are often mild and one study conducted on people with high blood pressure showed no effect.
Dark Chocolate Nutritional Profile
One ounce of dark chocolate having 70% to 85% cocoa has:
- 2.2 grams protein
- 12 grams fat
- 12.8 grams carbohydrate
- 3.1 grams fiber
- 0.5 milligrams copper (25% DV – Daily Value)
- 0.5 milligrams manganese (27% DV)
- 3.3 milligrams iron (19% DV)
- 200 milligrams potassium (6% DV)
- 86.2 milligrams phosphorous (9% DV)
- 63.8 milligrams magnesium (16% DV)
- 0.9 milligrams zinc (6% DV)
- 1.9 micrograms selenium (3% DV)
- 2 micrograms vitamin K (3% DV)
- 20.4 milligrams calcium (2% DV)
- 168 calories
Dark chocolate has an excellent fat profile too. The fats in it are mostly monounsaturated and saturated, and a small amount of polyunsaturated fat.
There are stimulants such as caffeine as well as theobromine in dark chocolate, but the amount of caffeine being very small compared to coffee, it can hardly keep a person awake at night.
Dark chocolate is beneficial for one’s health only when eaten in moderation (one ounce or less per day). Eating it in larger amounts can cause side effects like: acne, skin allergies, constipation, bloating, eczema, gas, dental caries, headache, irregular heart rhythm, irritability, migraines, neck pain, nausea and vomiting, nervousness, weight gain, unpleasant taste, upset stomach and similar.
All these can be avoided only by avoiding overindulging in dark chocolate.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women and those who are planning to become pregnant should also avoid overeating dark chocolate. It is considered safe for pregnant women when eaten in small amounts.
Another potential risk factor in dark chocolate is soy lecithin, which is widely used as an emulsifier. Soy lecithin contains trace quantities of soy proteins which in turn include soy allergens. However, some people try to avoid soy lecithin not for the allergy reasons because soy lecithin doesn’t contain enough of soy protein traces to trigger allergic reactions in most soy-allergic people. They avoid soy lecithin to avoid genetically modified soy. Thus, while buying a dark chocolate with soy lecithin, it’s advisable to look for organic soy lecithin or non-GMO soy lecithin so as to avoid GMOs.
Dark chocolate is neither a low-fat nor a low-calorie food which is another reason for not overeating it.
Lastly, if there are pets in one’s home, dark chocolate should be kept beyond their reach because chocolate in any form is toxic to dogs as well as cats.
For short: feel free to add natural dark chocolate and/or cocoa powder to your shakes and smoothies in order to improve taste, aroma and fragrance and to improve nutritional profile of such shakes and smoothies.
Just don't forget that too much of something good is NOT always a good thing :)