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If you’re like me, you love to eat chocolate. But not just any chocolate — I eat the varieties that are often referred to as “superfoods.” I’m talking about dark chocolate and cacoa nibs, which are both truly healthy forms of chocolate if you pick the right products. You’re probably thinking how is dark chocolate good for you, and in general, is chocolate good for you? Well, I’m about to tell you all about dark chocolate and how the benefits of dark chocolate are definitely for real.
The average American consumes roughly 12 pounds of chocolate each year, and over $75 billion is spent annually worldwide on chocolate. (1) There is a lot of chocolate eating going on regularly, which is why I want to help you make the smart, healthy choice. That way you can have your chocolate without guilt and with health benefits of dark chocolate to boot!
Chocolate lovers rejoice when the benefits of antioxidants found in chocolate are talked about, but it’s important to realize that not all chocolate is created equal, not even close. The potential health benefits of processed, highly sweetened chocolate are slim to none, but the health benefits of dark chocolate are numerous and quite impressive.
As preventive cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City says, “When looking for a sweet snack, a square of dark chocolate might, in fact, be your healthiest choice!” (2) Let’s look at exactly why this expert medical opinion really does ring true and why a little dark chocolate is more than just a tasty treat — with health benefits of dark chocolate that include protection against disease and improved brain and heart health.
7 Awesome Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
1. Protection from Disease-Causing Free Radicals
One of my favorite benefits of dark chocolate is its free radical fightingability. Free radicals are unbalanced compounds created by cellular processes in the body, especially those that fight against environmental toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Antioxidants are the compounds that are believed to neutralize free radicals and protect the body from their damage.
Antioxidants include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals — helpful plant compounds. One of dark chocolate’s most impressive attributes is its high antioxidant content, which is why it made my list of top 10 high-antioxidant foods.
Two groups of antioxidants prevalent in dark chocolate are flavonoids and polyphenols. Dark chocolate’s cocoa has actually been shown to have the highest content of polyphenols and flavonoids, even greater than wine and tea. (3) So the higher the cacao/cocoa percentage of your next dark chocolate bar, the more awesome antioxidants you’ll consume.
2. Potential Cancer Prevention
It may be hard to believe, but that tasty dark chocolate you eat and love may also help you ward off cancer. That’s right — one of the benefits of dark chocolate is its potential as a cancer-fighting food.
According to the American Cancer Institute: (4)
“Given chocolate’s rich supply of flavonoids, researchers have also investigated whether it may play a role in cancer prevention. The studies in cancer prevention are still emerging. A recent review of studies on the cancer protective properties of cocoa concluded that the evidence is limited but suggestive. More rigorous studies should be conducted on chocolates’ cancer protective role, concluded the author, because it provides ‘strong antioxidant effects in combination with a pleasurable eating experience.’”
3. Improved Heart Health
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in dark chocolate. According to Cleveland Clinic, research has shown that flavanols have a very positive effect on heart health by helping lower blood pressure and improving blood flow to the heart as well as the brain. Dark chocolates flavanols can also help make blood platelets less sticky and able to clot, which reduces the risk of blood clots and stroke. (5)
A study published in International Journal of Cardiology had subjects either consume a daily dose of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate or non-flavonoid white chocolate for two weeks. The results showed that flavonoid-rich dark chocolate intake significantly improved heart circulation in healthy adults. On the other hand, white chocolate with zero flavonoids to brag about had no positive health effects on the subjects. (6)
Another study published in 2015 titled followed the health of over 20,000 people for 11 years. The study concluded that “cumulative evidence suggests that higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of future cardiovascular events” and that “there does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk.” Among subjects who consumed the most chocolate, 12 percent developed or died of cardiovascular disease during the study compared to 17.4 percent of those who didn’t eat chocolate. (7) This doesn’t give anyone license to eat a chocolate bar each day, but it’s impressive that this large and lengthy study does appear to show a positive connection between chocolate consumption and heart health.
4. Good for Overall Cholesterol Profile
The cocoa butter found in dark chocolate contains equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. It’s true that stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat, but research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, which means it doesn’t raise it or lower it. The palmitic acid in dark chocolate can increase cholesterol levels, but thankfully it only makes up about a small portion of the fat in dark chocolate — plus dark chocolate has a lot of great plant nutrients that make up for palmitic acid.
A 2009 study published in Southern Medical Journal looked at the effects of dark chocolate on 28 healthy voluntary subjects. The researchers found that just one week of dark chocolate consumption improved lipid profiles and decreased platelet reactivity for both men and women while reducing inflammation only in women. (8)
Studies have also shown that:
- Dark chocolate’s cocoa polyphenols may be involved in cholesterol control.
- Three-week consumption of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate increased HDL (good) cholesterol.
- 15-day consumption of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate resulted in total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol decreases of 6.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.
- Seven-day consumption of regular dark chocolate resulted in a 6 percent decrease of LDL cholesterol and a 9 percent increase of HDL cholesterol.
5. Better Cognitive Function
Dark chocolate makes my list of 15 brain foods to boost focus and memory for good reason. Previous research showed that “acute as well as chronic ingestion of flavanol-rich cocoa is associated with increased blood flow to cerebral gray matter and it has been suggested that cocoa flavanols might be beneficial in conditions with reduced cerebral blood flow, including dementia and stroke.”
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated flavonoid-rich dark chocolate’s ability to improve cognitive ability, specifically in the elderly. This cross-sectional study of over 2,000 participants ages 70 to 74 years old looked at the relationship between the intake of chocolate, wine and tea (all rich in flavonoids) and cognitive performance. The study concludes that “intake of flavonoid-rich food, including chocolate, wine, and tea, is associated with better performance across several cognitive abilities and that the associations are dose dependent.” The researchers suggest that further studies should take into account other bioactive dietary substances in chocolate, wine and tea to ensure that it’s their flavonoid content that helps the brain so much. (9)
6. Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar Aid
As I’m writing this article, there are already 75 scientific articles looking at dark chocolate and blood pressure. A study published in 2015 compared type 2 diabetics’ consumption of white chocolate versus high-cocoa, polyphenol-rich dark chocolate. The subjects consumed 25 grams (a little under one ounce) of dark or white chocolate for eight weeks. The researchers found that not only did dark chocolate lower the blood pressure of the hypertensive diabetics, but it also decreased fasting blood sugar. (10)
Of course, if you’re a diabetic, the higher the cocoa content, which also means the lower the sugar content, the better. It’s also key to note that this was a very small amount of dark chocolate per day at 0.88 ounces.
7. Antioxidant-Rich Superfood
In a study conducted by the Hershey Co. and published in Chemistry Central Journal, the total flavanol and polyphenol content as well as antioxidant activity content of dark chocolate and cocoa powder were compared to super fruits like acai, cranberry, blueberry and pomegranate. The dark chocolates, cocoa powders and cocoa beverage in the study all contained natural or non-alkalized cocoa. This is important to note since the alkalinization of cocoa has been shown to destroy healthy polyphenolic compounds.
So what did the study show? The researchers found that the flavanol content of cocoa powder (30.1 milligrams per gram) was significantly greater than all of the other super fruit powders. It was also revealed that dark chocolate’s antioxidant capacity was higher than all of the super fruit juices except pomegranate. The total polyphenol content per serving was also highest for dark chocolate (about 1,000 milligrams per serving), which was significantly higher than all of the fruit juices except pomegranate juice. (11)