Potential Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
We’ve read many articles over the years describing the potential health benefits of dark chocolate, but haven’t posted about them. Why? Well, one reason is we’re not medical professionals, and can’t independently verify any of the claims we’re reading. Another is that there’s an obvious conflict of interest when a chocolate maker mentions how healthy chocolate could be.
But, at this point we’ve seen so many articles referencing studies which suggest non-alkalized dark chocolate may have numerous health benefits we can’t help ourselves. So, with the caveat that we are not medical professionals and full disclosure that our providing this information is a clear conflict of interest, below are links to some articles talking about how non-alkalized dark chocolate may have numerous health benefits. As always, we encourage you to do your own research about the potential health benefits of chocolate!
Also, immediately following these links we explain some of the terms often used when referring to the health benefits of chocolate, such as polyphenols, flavanols and antioxidants. These terms appear numerous times in the articles listed below and it’s important to understand their meaning!
National Institutes of Health: This article is a great place to start. Although it focuses on “fortified” chocolate it gives a (very detailed!) overview of the bioactive components in chocolate, how they work, and why they may provide numerous health benefits.
Quote: “The most prominent health benefit is the prevention of cancer due to its excellent antioxidant property.”
Medical News Today: This article references a study which shows eating even small amounts of dark chocolate can result in a rapid improvement in memory.
Quote: “The team uncovered evidence of a link between consumption of cocoa flavanols and almost immediate improvements in working memory. One study, for example, identified working memory improvements in young adults just 2 hours after consuming 773 milligrams of cocoa flavanols.”
Medical News Today: This article in the same publication notes some of dark chocolate’s broader potential benefits.
Quote: “Some research suggests that dark chocolate may help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, increase the diversity of the gut microbiome, and improve brain function.”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: This article references observational studies which suggest cocoa flavanols are beneficial to heart health.
Quote: “Other observational studies suggest a link between high cocoa or chocolate intake of 6 grams daily (1-2 small squares) and a reduced risk of heart disease and mortality, possibly in part by reducing blood pressure and inflammation.”
Cleveland Clinic: This article notes numerous potential health benefits, including how chocolate could protect your skin from sun damage and even lower your risk of diabetes.
Quote: “Dark chocolate is packed full of important minerals, including iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and phosphorus. In your body, these minerals are used to support factors such as immunity (zinc), can help keep your bones and teeth healthy (phosphorus), and contribute to better sleep quality (magnesium).”
WebMD: Did you know eating dark chocolate may help improve your vision?
Quote: “Early tests showed that people who ate dark chocolate had improved vision two hours after eating the chocolate, compared to people who ate milk chocolate instead.”
Scripps Health: This article explains what antioxidants are, and discusses how studies have shown the antioxidants in chocolate can result in certain health benefits.
Quote: “One study found that eating raw almonds, dark chocolate and cocoa may help reduce the risk of coronary disease. The study in the Journal of American Heart Association found that this combination helped reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — also known as “bad cholesterol” — due to the role they play in clogging arteries.”
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: This study, available in the NIH’s National Library of Medicine, determined that the flavanols in chocolate can result in cognitive improvements, especially in people age 65 or older.
Quote: “In summary, the results of this study indicate that the regular intake of CFs can improve aspects of cognitive performance among elderly subjects with no evidence of cognitive dysfunction, effects that appear to be dependent on the amount of CF intake. In addition to the possible direct effects of flavanols on cognitive function, general improvements in cardiovascular function and specific metabolic variables could have, alone or in combination, played a role in improving cognitive performance in these subjects.”
Healthline: This article lists numerous health benefits of dark chocolate, including improving brain function and heart health.
Quote: “There is considerable evidence that cocoa can provide powerful health benefits, being especially protective against heart disease.”
BeBrainFit: This is a fun, easy read with lots of good details about the potential benefits of chocolate, especially on brain health.
Quote: “Dark chocolate boosts mood, protects the brain, improves memory and focus & more.”
And, of course, there are many, many more articles out there describing how healthy chocolate could be for you. After all, chocolate is plant based – it comes from a fruit!
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the potential health benefits are directly related to the amount of cacao in your chocolate. Bars made by large, industrialized chocolate makers can contain as little as 11% cacao (with 10% being the legal minimum in order for the product to be called “chocolate”). With such a small amount of cacao there isn’t going to be much benefit.
Also, it’s important to remember that most industrialized chocolate makers alkalize their cacao, which deepens the color and makes the cacao more water soluble, but also strips out most of the healthy flavonoids.
Notice we used the term “flavonoids” instead of one of the other terms used in articles above. There’s a reason for that. Now is probably a good time to explain the difference between some of the terms you’ll hear when the health benefits of chocolate are being discussed.
The term most often used when describing the healthy compounds in chocolate is flavanols. Yes, it’s true that chocolate contains flavanols but it also contains flavonols. The difference is just one letter but the terms describe different things. Both flavanols (sometimes referred to as flavan-3-ols) and flavonols are a subclass of flavonoids, which is why we use the term flavonoids when referring to the healthy stuff in chocolate. Note that there are types of flavonoids other than just flavanols and flavonols and those types occur in cacao as well, which is another reason we use the term. In just a bit we’ll give you a complete list of ALL the flavonoids in cacao.
We also need to explain another term which is often used when describing the beneficial compounds in chocolate: polyphenols. Flavonoids are often referred to as polyphenols because they’re one class of that larger family, but not all polyphenols are flavanoids. While flavonoids make up about 60% of all polyphenols, other types include phenolic acids (30% – also found in fruits and vegetables), polyphenolic amides (less than 10% – capsaicinoids in chili peppers, avenanthramides in oats), and last and also least, “other polyphenols,” such as resveratrol in red wine and lignins in whole grains. So, using the term polyphenols to describe the beneficial compounds is correct, although not very precise. Here’s why:
Polyphenols can be synthetic, whereas flavonoids are always naturally occurring compounds. Since the beneficial compounds in chocolate are all naturally occurring it’s more precise to use the term flavonoids when describing them.
Another term that’s used a lot is antioxidants. Both polyphenols and flavonoids are considered to be antioxidants, which is why that term is sometimes used as a catch-all when referring to the potentially beneficial compounds in chocolate. So, what are antioxidants, you ask?
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Bear with us for a moment because free radicals bear explaining, too, since understanding free radicals helps with understanding the effects of antioxidants:
Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if their levels get too high in your body. They’re constantly being formed in your body as a natural byproduct of normal metabolism, but without the presence of antioxidants they can quickly cause serious harm and, eventually, death. But… free radicals also serve some essential health functions which keep you alive, such as helping your immune cells fight infections. Therefore your body needs to maintain a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants. To help maintain this balance animals (like us) generate their own antioxidants. Plants do the same, hence the reason why cacao (which comes from a fruit) contains antioxidants. Three very important dietary antioxidants are Vitamin C, Vitamin E and, you guessed it… flavonoids. So, eating foods that are high in antioxidants, such as chocolate, can help your body maintain a healthy level of antioxidants which can be helpful in counteracting the negative effects of free radicals.
So, to summarize: Polyphenols are the overarching class which include the flavonoids in chocolate. Flavanols and flavonols are a subclass of flavanoids. And the term antioxidants is often used as a catch-all term which refers to all of the above.
In any event, before we went off on our mind-bending flavanol-flavonol-flavonoid-polyphenol-antioxidant rant we were talking about alkalization. Studies have shown it removes the vast majority of the healthy flavonoids in chocolate. The amount of flavonoids removed depended on the level of alkalization, with “lightly” alkalized cocoa losing 60% of flavonoids, “moderately” alkalized cocoa losing almost 80% and “heavily” alkalized losing 90%. Based on these studies it’s important to choose a non-alkalized chocolate if you’re looking to get the full potential health benefits of the cacao in your chocolate. Check the ingredient list – chocolate that has been alkalized will often say “processed with alkali.” But, it’s important to note that European chocolate makers are not required to use this language if their chocolate has been alkalized.
So, what are the flavonoids in chocolate? Here’s a handy and, to the best of our knowledge, complete list:
Procyanidins (B1, B2, B3, B4, C1)
Anthocyanins (deep red, blue and purple pigments found in plants):
Flavones (yellow and orange pigments found in plants):
Flavanones: (aromatic, colorless ketones found in plants)
For more detailed information on these flavonoids, their health effects, and also the nonflavonoid polyphenols in chocolate check out this very informative article from the NIH’s National Library of Medicine.
Another potentially beneficial compound in chocolate is theobromine which, like caffeine, is a methylxanthine compound. Chocolate actually contains several methylxanthine compounds, with theobromine being the most prevalent, and caffeine present in very low amounts. In addition to their psychoactive properties (which is a subject for another post), theobromine and caffeine both have many antioxidant effects as well.
So, there you have it. A quick and simple (insert sarcasm here) explanation of why cacao may be so good for you! We hope the links and our little explainer of terms helps. And, of course we welcome any comments. Until then, happy chocolate eating!