We think of dark chocolate as a rich dessert — a luxurious treat. But beyond its delicious taste, true dark chocolate is a superfood. A bar of dark chocolate that is at least 60 percent pure cacao is one of the healthiest snacks you can give yourself to eat. It is loaded with antioxidants and flavonoids that give it remarkable, long-lasting benefits.
What Is Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate comes from the cacao plant. The cacao is a small tropical tree native to Central and South America, but now grown around the world, and especially in Africa. Each tree yields almost 2,000 seed pods each year, and inside the pods are about 40 bitter seeds. These pods are harvested and opened by hand, and then the beans are left to ferment.
When cacao beans ferment, their sugars turn into acid and they start to gain the flavor that we know as chocolate. The beans are then dried before processing. Processing involves roasting the beans to bring out their flavor and smell, and then they are cracked open. Inside of the bean is the cacao nib. The nibs are edible by themselves but they are bitter. To be processed into dark chocolate they are crushed and ground into a paste called liquor, which can then be made into a dry powder called cocoa or sweetened and mixed with sugar and other additives to make chocolate. Though chocolate can be processed into different types, including white chocolate and milk chocolate, it is only dark chocolate that offers health benefits. To be sure that you are eating the true, healthy dark chocolate that contains antioxidants, make sure that it contains at least 60% cocoa content – the more the better.
1. Dark Chocolate Contains an Impressive List of Nutrients
Though we think of chocolate as dessert, dark chocolate is far different from white or milk chocolate. As its name indicates, milk chocolate is mixed with milk, and may only contain as little as 10% chocolate. White chocolate does not contain chocolate at all – instead it contains cocoa butter that is removed from the cacao beans during processing. When dark chocolate is minimally processed and has a cocoa content over 70% it is an extremely healthy food that contains antioxidants and flavanols, fiber and important minerals. Though different processes will yield different levels of sugar and percentage of cacao, one ounce of dark chocolate contains approximately:
Calories – 168
Protein – 2.2 grams
Fiber – 3.1 grams
Manganese – 0.5 mg (27% of RDV)
Copper – 0.5 mg (25% of RDV)
Iron – 3.3 mg (19% of RDV)
Magnesium – 63.8 mg (16% of RDV)
Phosphorus – 86.2 mg (9% of RDV)
Potassium – 200 mg (6% of RDV)
Zinc – 0.9 mg (6% of RDV)
Vitamin K – 2 mcg (3% of RDV)
Selenium – 1.9 mcg (3% of RDV)
Calcium – 20.4 mg (2% of RDV)
Dark chocolate is a delicious food that is loaded with flavonoids, polyphenols and flavanols. These make it a guilt-free superfood and a true nutritional powerhouse.
2. Dark Chocolate Can Lift Your Mood
Dark chocolate contains three different compounds that lift your mood and your energy. They are:
- Andandamide – This chemical is similar in structure to THC, the chemical found in marijuana. It lifts your mood and gives you a boost of energy.
- Theobromine – This chemical is similar in structure to caffeine. It lifts energy levels and makes you more alert.
- Phenethylamine – Your body turns this compound into serotonin, the mood-regulating hormone.
Each of these chemicals helps to stimulate endorphins in the brain that make us happier. It can ease depression and anxiety and make us feel calmer.
Bottom Line: It’s more than just the flavor of chocolate that lifts your spirits. Chocolate sends powerful, mood-boosting chemicals into your brain.
3. Dark Chocolate Is a Heart Healthy Food
Studies have shown that cocoa can help to fight heart disease when it is eaten on a daily basis. It is rich in flavonoids, which repair damage caused by free radicals. They also have been shown to lower blood pressure, boost circulation of blood to the heart, and lower the risk of blood clots. Though chocolate does contain fat, one third of its fats come from oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. One third comes from stearic acid, which neither raises nor lowers cholesterol. The other third does have a boosting effect on LDL cholesterol. For this reason, it is recommended that people looking for dark chocolate’s heart-healthy benefits only eat a small amount of dark chocolate each day.
Bottom Line: Eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day or a few times a week has been linked to lower rates of heart disease.
4. Low Sugar Dark Chocolate Can Help Fight Diabetes
Chocolate’s flavonoids can lower the risk of blood clots, relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. All of these are important for people with diabetes, but the most important thing that low sugar dark chocolate can do is to lower blood glucose and improve insulin function. Studies have shown that eating chocolate with little added sugars and a cocoa content of at least 70% has been linked to a 31% decrease in diabetes risk.
Bottom Line: Eaten in moderation, dark chocolate’s polyphenols help lower blood glucose level and fight many of the health complications that plague people with diabetes.
5. Dark Chocolate Can Help Fend Off Cancer
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which are the chemicals found in our body that can harm our cells. Free radicals can increase in response to toxins in our environment. When there are too many free radicals in our bodies, they cause damage that can lead to mutations that eventually turn into cancer. When we eat foods that have high levels of antioxidants, they clear the free radicals out of our systems. Chocolate is one of the top sources of antioxidants available. It contains both flavonoids and polyphenols that can reduce damage to cells.
Bottom Line: Dark chocolate has more flavanols and phytochemicals than most other foods. It may be an effective and delicious way to counter the damage done by free radicals.
6. Dark Chocolate is Brain Food
The cocoa found in dark chocolate has been linked to increased blood flow to the brain. This has led scientists to believe that it may help people who are suffering from degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, as well as those who have suffered damage due to stroke. Some studies have shown that when people were given dark chocolate with high levels of flavonoids they scored better on cognitive tests. One test showed that a single dose of high flavanols dark chocolate improved performance on memory tests.
Bottom Line: The flavanols in dark chocolate accumulate in the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. This improves our ability to remember and make important logical connections.
What You Need to Know About Buying Chocolate
Despite all dark chocolate’s many benefits, it can also be high in calories, fat, and sugar. Choosing carefully when buying chocolate is important. Only eat a small amount at a time: the University of Michigan recommends no more than 7 ounces a week, with no more than one ounce per day. The American Cancer Society recommends only eating dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. This choice ensures that you will take in lower levels of sugar and fat.
The less the chocolate is processed, the better, and organic or fair trade chocolate is even better. Always check chocolate’s ingredient list to make sure that it is not made with palm or coconut oils, as only cocoa butter will provide the full health benefits.