Dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health. Made from the seed of the cocoa tree, it is one of the best sources of antioxidants on the planet.
The world’s love affair with chocolate has only grown over the years. We love it drizzled on ice cream, mixed with warm milk for a delicious beverage. Or combined with nuts and caramel for a tempting treat. Chocolate remains one of our favorite indulgences; Americans eat around $18.27 billion worth of chocolate every year—nearly 18 percent of the world’s chocolate confectionery, according to 2015 statistics released by Euromonitor International. And as culinary artists continue to create new ways to experiment with cocoa, dark chocolate has grown in popularity as a rich and intense alternative to milk chocolate.
Along the way, the benefits of dark chocolate have pushed its popularity. You’ve probably seen dark chocolate listed among “must-eat healthy foods” in compilations written by various nutrition experts. Yet depending on how it’s made, dark chocolate also can be high in calories, fat, sugar, and preservatives. So, what’s the real deal? Is dark chocolate healthy?
Fortunately, small amounts of quality-made dark chocolate can offer awesome health benefits. Here are 7 reasons to enjoy it without guilt.
Studies show that dark chocolate (not the sugary crap) can improve your health and lower the risk of heart disease.
If you buy quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, then it is actually quite nutritious.
It contains a decent amount of soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals.
A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70–85% cocoa contains.
11 grams of fiber
67% of the RDI for iron
58% of the RDI for magnesium
89% of the RDI for copper
98% of the RDI for manganese
It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium
Of course, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) is a fairly large amount and not something you should be consuming daily. All these nutrients also come with 600 calories and moderate amounts of sugar.
For this reason, dark chocolate is best consumed in moderation.
The fatty acid profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is also excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
It also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine but is unlikely to keep you awake at night as the amount of caffeine is very small compared to coffee.
Dark chocolate is a “good food.”
Why is dark chocolate good for you? It contains a high amount of polyphenols, phytochemicals that have been shown to improve depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
A recent study published in Hypertension showed that performance on cognitive tests significantly improved in elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment if they consumed a daily cocoa drink containing high levels of flavanols for eight weeks, compared to those who consumed a low-flavanol cocoa drink. (Flavonols are a member of the polyphenol family—compounds found in natural plant food sources that have antioxidant properties.) Because dark chocolate contains more cocoa solids than other types of chocolate, it naturally contains more flavanols.
Dark chocolate can boost your memory
Once again, flavanols get the credit—this time, for their effect on the regions of the brain, especially the hippocampus, that involve learning and memory. They increase blood flow to the brain as well as promote the growth, functioning, and connections of neurons, according to a recent study.
Powerful Source of Antioxidants
ORAC stands for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity.” It is a measure of the antioxidant activity of foods.
Basically, researchers set a bunch of free radicals (bad) against a sample of a food and see how well the antioxidants in the food can “disarm” the radicals.
The biological relevance of ORAC values is questioned because it’s measured in a test tube and may not have the same effect in the body.
However, it is worth mentioning that raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are among the highest-scoring foods that have been tested.
Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins, among others.
One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries.
Improve Blood Flow and Lower Blood Pressure
The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce nitric oxide.
One of the functions of NO is to send signals to the arteries to relax, which lowers the resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure.
Many controlled studies show that cocoa and dark chocolate can improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, though the effects are usually mild.
However, one study in people with high blood pressure showed no effect, so take all this with a grain of salt.
Raises HDL and Protects LDL From Oxidation
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease.
In a controlled study, cocoa powder was found to significantly decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
Oxidized LDL means that the LDL (“bad” cholesterol) has reacted with free radicals.
This makes the LDL particle itself reactive and capable of damaging other tissues, such as the lining of the arteries in your heart.
It makes perfect sense that cocoa lowers oxidized LDL. It contains an abundance of powerful antioxidants that do make it into the bloodstream and protect lipoproteins against oxidative damage.
Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
Reduce Heart Disease Risk
The compounds in dark chocolate appear to be highly protective against the oxidation of LDL.
The long-term, this should cause much less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries. Resulting in a lower risk of heart disease
In fact, several long-term observational studies show a fairly drastic improvement.
In a study of 470 elderly men, cocoa was found to reduce the risk of death from heart disease by a whopping 50% over a 15 year period.
Another study revealed that eating chocolate two or more times per week lowered the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32%. Eating chocolate less frequently had no effect.
Yet another study showed that eating dark chocolate more than 5 times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%.
Of course, these three studies are observational studies, so can’t prove that it was the chocolate that reduced the risk.
However, since the biological process is known (lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL), it is plausible that regularly eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Protect Your Skin From the Sun
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin.
The flavonols can protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration.
The minimal erythemal dose (MED) is the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin 24 hours after exposure.
In one study of 30 people, the MED more than doubled after consuming dark chocolate high in flavanols for 12 weeks.
If you’re planning a beach vacation, consider loading up on dark chocolate in the prior weeks and months.
Is Dark Chocolate Healthy in All Cases?
While dark chocolate can play an important role in your diet, it can be easy to overlook the fact that—depending on the brand—it can be quite high in fat and sugar. Therefore, moderation is key.
Medical professionals recommend consuming 1.5 to 2 ounces of dark chocolate. Containing 70-80 percent of cacao a day to receive the health benefits. Any additional amount may introduce too much fat and sugar into your diet. If you’re not a huge fan of dark chocolate, just a small square 2 or 3 times a week still offers heart health benefits.
And while truffles filled with caramel, ganache, and fruit preserves are delicious. They’re probably going to sabotage your nutritious eating plan. It’s better to pair dark chocolate with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for a protein-rich afternoon snack.
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