Some time ago I was asked to write about the health benefits of eating dark chocolate. Prior to knowing how our well-being can be boosted by this inviting Theobroma, Greek for ‘food of the gods’, let’s first see what chocolate actually is, according to technical definitions and regulatory standards.
Chocolate is a food product obtained from the fermented, dried, roasted, and then ground seeds of cocoa (Theobroma cacao), a plant native to Central and South America, but now intensively cultivated in Western Africa, which supplies almost two-thirds of the cocoa on the global market.
The liquefied cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor, is made up of two components in roughly equal ratio: cocoa solids and cocoa butter, its naturally occurring fat.
Different commercial types of chocolate include sugar in their formulation, of which dark chocolate (also known as bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate in North America) is the version having the higher concentrations of cocoa mass, with no added sugar in the case of extra-dark (or bitter) chocolate (ranging from 70% to 99% cocoa).
In Europe, food regulations don’t allow dark chocolate to contain milk products (be it as skimmed solids or fat) in its formulation and accept up to a maximum of 5% vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, on condition that it’s specified on the label. In the US and Canada, on the other hand, no use of cocoa butter substitutes and artificial sweeteners are allowed in the manufacturing of chocolate, but a certain amount of milk solids, less than 12%, is permitted:
-> Regulations of Chocolate <-
Health benefits of dark chocolate
Source of dietary fiber
Thanks to its vegetable origin, dark chocolate is a decent source of fiber—about 7g per 100g is concentrated in the outer part of the cocoa seed. As a result of consuming a recommended daily intake of a 10–20g square of dark chocolate, one can meet about 5–10% of one’s daily dietary fiber requirement, which is 20–30g, as mentioned in a previous post.
Positive effects on the balance of blood cholesterol
Dark chocolate contains virtuous fatty acids, derived from the cocoa butter, such as oleic and stearic acid (representing 37% and 34% of the total fatty acids, respectively), both of which have positive effects on maintaining the balance of blood cholesterol. Studies also claim that dark chocolate’s fats contribute to the repair of nerves with mechanical damage.
Powerful antioxidant effects and neurological preservation
The content of antioxidants in dark chocolate is twice as high as that of red wine and almost three times higher than that of green tea. Dark chocolate contains good concentrations of polyphenolic compounds, such as flavonoids—of which flavonols are indigenous to cocoa—which have antioxidant abilities. Flavonoids are substances that protect body cells from harmful free radicals, which are unstable molecules that may cause inflammations and degenerative diseases (cancer; neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; etc.).
Source of minerals against anemia and fatigue
Dark chocolate contains a good quantity of mineral salts functional to metabolism, in particular iron (almost half of one’s recommended daily intake per 100g of product), but also magnesium, copper, and potassium. That’s why this food can be recommended in the non-pharmacological therapy of anemia, a disease caused by a lack of iron impeding blood cells from tying up oxygen.
A boost to metabolism and protection of the cardiovascular system
Chocolate contains theobromine, an alkaloid substance similar to caffeine, but much more delicate. Theobromine is known to stimulate metabolism and dilate blood vessels, thus reducing blood pressure. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean one should overdo it by eating a lot of chocolate. Indeed, a daily portion of no more than 20g of dark chocolate is ideal to maximize the benefits of these effects.
Positive effects on diabetes
Recent studies have shown that the antioxidant effects of dark chocolate, especially ones containing 70% or more cocoa, may even affect insulin resistance and therefore reduce the risk of diabetes. Consequently, the higher the content of cocoa, the healthier the effects on blood sugar, since the percentage of cocoa is inversely related to that of added sugar.
Fine effects on mood
Among its many nutrients, dark chocolate is also rich in tryptophan, an amino-acid precursor to the synthesis of serotonin; this amino-acid is a prominent neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, sexuality, and appetite. As a result, chocolate helps benefit one’s overall mood during the day.
Contrasting effects on the onset of dental caries
The onset of caries is mostly affected by the duration of the sugar’s contact with teeth rather than the amount of sugar consumed. Dark chocolate does not “attach” to teeth as do crackers, cookies, or dried fruits. Studies highlight that dark chocolate and cocoa may even promote dental health benefits because they contain antioxidants that counter the buildup of plaque.
Protective effects on the skin from sun exposure
Due to its quality content of flavonols and beneficial fats, dark chocolate can better prepare skin for sun exposure and even promote a safer suntan. In fact, while cosmetics like lip balms and suntan creams containing active ingredients from cocoa are already proven to protect skin against harmful UV exposure and even repair damage from rashes and sunburns, dark chocolate can provide an internal reinforcement of the same active ingredients, as its regular consumption helps keep skin more compact, dense, and hydrated.
Although the benefits of chocolate are numerous and also of a certain value, its excessive consumption should be avoided by pregnant women, people who suffer from migraines, and people prone to kidney stones. In fact, pregnant women should limit high-caloric and stimulating foods, like chocolate, but not avoid it altogether, taking into account all the benefits listed above. Migraine sufferers, as well should limit their chocolate intake, as it contains a substance called tyramine, which is responsible for the onset of migraines. Lastly, the presence in chocolate of oxalates, which are mineral aggregates, can increase the risk of kidney stones, though clinical cases present evidence that the main cause of an increase of oxalates in the human body is 80% due to the metabolism of the individual rather than the foods ingested in one’s diet.
With due caution, consuming 10 to 20 grams of dark chocolate a day has benefits that undoubtedly outweigh the risks manifest in very limited cases.
Last but not least, it would be a real pity to invalidate all of chocolate’s potential benefits by choosing a product of mediocre quality. Which brings us to the best benefit of all: choosing a chocolate by getting to know your favourite brand and how to pick it. Toward that end, a brief vade mecum follows:
- Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa. The higher the cocoa concentration, the less sugar. Also, be wary of brands selling organic products if the price is excessively higher than a commercial grade chocolate.
- Good chocolate has cocoa solids and cocoa butter (or, alternatively, cocoa mass/liquor), and not sugar, written first on the ingredient list on the label.
- Lecithin is an ingredient used in chocolate manufacturing as an emulsifier (a soy-sourced food additive stabilizing chocolate fats with the rest of the mixed ingredients). As with sugar, it should be listed near the end of the ingredient list; a higher quantity of it may give the product an unwanted aftertaste.
- Your senses should tell a lot about the quality of the chocolate: a glossy surface when unwrapped, a clean snapping sound when broken, and a rapid melting in your mouth when tasted are all good signs of a great chocolate.
That being said, preferences can be personal and it may also be interesting to try different brands and find your match. Personally, I like a chocolate with a bitter to neutral sweet savor. One of the better chocolates I’ve ever had was from Venezuela; it had an opaque surface, was pretty rough and hard, surely not that typical sugary surrogate that some presumably “renowned” brands want us to get used to.