The Not-So-Bitter Truth About Dark Chocolate

Ageing chocolate
Dorling Kindersley: William Reavell / Getty Images

When the holidays are upon us we all know what’s on the menu: chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate! As we say farewell to Christmas Day and forge on with Hanukkah and New Year’s festivities, you’ve likely had your fill of chocolate chip cookies, hot chocolate, truffles, and yule log cake. With Valentine’s Day only 51 days after Christmas (can you believe it?!), we figured it was a great time for a “Chocolate 101” lesson.

For years, researchers have investigated the health effects of this tasty treat (of course, when it’s eaten in moderation) and have ultimately reached the following conclusion: dark chocolate has numerous health benefits. We're huge fans of dark chocolate (and have even included it as one of our top 10 superfoods), so we have compiled a list of its health benefits and of tasty ways to enjoy its deliciousness.

The Truth About Antioxidants

Dark chocolate is made from cocoa, a powder extracted from cocoa beans that are grown in humid climates. Cocoa is a rich source of flavonoids, specifically epicatechins and procyanidins (try saying those names three times fast!). These flavonoids belong to a group called polyphenols and are potent antioxidants that protect your cells from damage. This protection can help prevent aging, various types of cancer and dangerous heart and cardiovascular diseases.

Other sources of polyphenols include red wine, tea, and berries—the news just gets better and better, right?

The Truth About Heart Health

Dark chocolate similarly has positive effects on our ticker. Studies have shown that dark chocolate can help increase the diameter of important arteries, thereby preventing dangerous arterial constriction.

Similar studies have also found that dark chocolate increases vasomotility (the actual movement of blood) and prevents dangerous platelet clots. In addition, consumption of dark chocolate can increase the total amount of HDL (“good cholesterol”) in your blood while simultaneously decreasing LDL (“bad cholesterol”).

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Doesn’t chocolate contain saturated fat?” You’re right—it does. While many types of saturated fat have been associated with poor cardiovascular health because they can elevate LDL and total cholesterol in the blood, one of the predominant types in chocolate, stearic acid, does not have these effects. While research into stearic acid is still being conducted, it is likely not one of the saturated fat “bad guys.” Stay tuned!

The Truth About Nutrients

Need more convincing? Dark chocolate is an excellent source of magnesium and copper, providing about 9 percent and 30 percent of the recommended dietary allowances (RDA), respectively, in only a 100-calorie serving.

Magnesium is important for energy production and protein synthesis, and copper is needed for brain development and glucose metabolism. Therefore, foods that are good sources of both nutrients are valuable to our overall health.

Dark chocolate is also a good source of iron, potassium, and fiber, so…eat up!

What About Milk Chocolate?

So, now we become somewhat of a Debbie Downer. Milk chocolate does not have the same health perks as dark chocolate. The darker variety has two to three times the amount of cocoa as milk chocolate, and this bitter powder is the key to all the listed health benefits. Thus, go for darker varieties the majority of the time.

A Choco-LOT of Opportunities

Need a few fun ways to indulge on the dark side? Try these suggestions:

  • Grab a bar of dark chocolate on your next shopping trip! Look for 70 percent or more cacao to reap more of the health benefits. Note: keep an eye on serving sizes; 1 ounce (about the size of a credit card) is an appropriate serving at approximately 150 calories.
  • Instead of enjoying plain ol’ oatmeal, mix in some cocoa powder. About 1 to 2 teaspoons per ½ cup of oats is all you need.
  • For your next family dinner or potluck, whip up my Dark Chocolate Fondue With Fresh Fruit. Because dark chocolate and berries are both great sources of polyphenols, you’ll be giving your body a double dose of antioxidant power!

Sources:

Corti, R., Flammer, A.J., Hollenberg, N.K. & Luscher, T.F. (2009). Cocoa and cardiovascular health. Circulation, 119, 1433 – 1441.

Flammer, A.J., Hermann, F., Sudano, I., Spieker, L., Hermann, M., Cooper, K.A., Serafini, M., Luscher, T.F., Ruschitzka, F., Noll, G. & Corti, R. (2007). Dark chocolate improves coronary vasomotion and reduces platelet reactivity. Circulation, 116(21), 2376-2382.

Katz, D.L., Doughty, K. & Ali, A. (2011). Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, 15 (10), 2779 – 2811.

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