By Dr Joe
What are the benefits of eating dark chocolate? Is dark chocolate healthy? Is dark chocolate bad for you?
These are some of the questions that bug a lot of health-conscious people all the time. Millions and millions of people love chocolate. Fewer millions love dark chocolate though. Chocolate to most people is an indulgence and why not.
Why do we love chocolates?
Lots more people love chocolate overall because it is very tasty and the creamy texture gives a vibrancy and joy that is difficult to match. Cool!
And the reason fewer people indulge in dark chocolate is because it’s not as tasty as the non-dark regular chocolate types.
Oh yes, palatability is the difference. A good dark chocolate is nowhere as palatable as say, milk chocolate or chocolate syrup.
Chocolate is made from cacao. Cacao is bitter. Cacao may be bitter but there is some fullness to the bitterness. A kind of bitterness that is welcoming and robust rather than off-putting.
Some people will argue that it is an acquired taste, hence they would rather lean towards the tastier more palatable end of the chocolate spectrum.
What these people don’t realise is that those tastier varieties of chocolate have very little to offer in the way of nutrition. They offer empty calories as opposed to nourishing your body. Mainly because these tastier brands are packed full of sugar, dairy and preservatives.
Dark chocolate on the other hand is different. Not all dark chocolates are wholesome though. Some have been padded with lots of sugar and dairy, thereby altering their nutritional profile.
For instance, the picture below is a dark chocolate but look at the sugar content. It’s got 41.5 gm of sugar per 100 gm of the chocolate bar. That’s a high level of sugar. It’s not the type you want to be eating.
Chocolate manufacturers are keen to make their product appealing to taste buds. How do they go about that? They have to add sugar to cancel out the bitterness of the cacao mass.
What are cocoa solids?
Wondering what constitutes the cocoa solids…
Well, the cocoa solids is the combination of the cocoa mass and cocoa butter.
The cocoa mass is what gives the chocolate its fruity flavour. The cocoa mass is where the bio-active compounds that confer the dark chocolate benefits reside. The cocoa butter on the other hand is what makes the chocolate to melt excellently and seamlessly in your mouth.
This marriage between the cocoa mass and cocoa butter produces the semisweet or the more nuanced bittersweet chocolate aromas that chocoholics have come to love, the world over.
What dark chocolate is healthy?
As you may have noticed in the earlier part of this article, I have emphasized that dark chocolate is healthier than other forms of chocolate. However, not all dark chocolates may be considered healthy like the example above. It all depends on the amount of cocoa solids or cocoa mass specifically in the dark chocolate.
In response to the question; what dark chocolate is healthy, the answer is; the dark chocolate with highest amount of cocoa solids. The higher the cocoa solids in the dark chocolate, the healthier it is.
For the most part, you want to eat the dark chocolate that has a high content of cocoa solids. The cocoa solids represent the amount of cacao in that bar of dark chocolate.
The more cocoa solids you have in the dark chocolate the better. The cocoa solid amount is reflected in the percentage of dark chocolate you see on the pack.
In essence, you should be aiming for at least 70% dark chocolate. Personally, I would recommend you go for 90% dark chocolate or even higher. It might not be as tasty but it will give you more of the benefits I am going to talk about here.
Generally speaking, the higher the cocoa solid content, the less sugar you have in the bar. See image below. It’s 90% dark chocolate but see how much sugar in 100 gm of the chocolate bar – 7.0 gm. Now, we are talking. Compare that to the previous dark chocolate brand.
The bio-active compounds in dark chocolate are in the cocoa solids, NOT in the milk or sugar in your chocolate bar.
The reason I’m saying is this because biochemically speaking, dark chocolate is good for your health but milk chocolate, white chocolate and chocolate syrup are bad for your health.
Let me repeat that, dark chocolate is not bad for your health but you need to eat the right dark chocolate to get the health benefits.
An alternative to dark chocolate is organic cacao powder providing superior benefits and unsweetened cacao baking powder or unsweetened baking chocolate.
And oh, some supplement companies now make and sell chocolate extracts. It is thought that these chocolate extracts are just as effective as dark chocolate.
That may be true but I would rather have the dark chocolate or cacao powder than pop some chocolate extract pill.
Why is dark chocolate good for your health?
Is dark chocolate good for your health? Well, yes it is. Dark chocolate is actually good and beneficial to our health.
The basis of the advantages or benefits of eating dark chocolate stems from 3 reasons:
- A high level of anti-oxidants
- Improved blood flow
- Supply of brain foods
Dark chocolate is made from cacao which is harvested from a plant called Theobroma cacao. Cacao is one of the best sources of antioxidants out there. The antioxidants in cacao and by extension dark chocolate aren’t exclusive to cacao though.
Green tea for instance has antioxidants but the sheer amount of antioxidants in cacao cannot be matched by any other plant source.
The antioxidants in dark chocolate (as in cacao) are flavanols and polyphenols. The polyphenols are procyanidins and epicatechins.
These flavanols, epicatechins and procyanidins have the potential to increase blood flow throughout the body. Improved blood flow especially to the heart and brain has significant advantages which I will discuss later in this article.
The presence of brain foods like Phenylethylamine, Anandamide and Tryptophan in dark chocolate has implications for nerve function, energy levels, alertness and mood levels. Phenylethylamine (PEA) activity in the brain is one of the most exploited advantages of dark chocolate.
Most of the benefits you get from eating dark chocolate spring from those 3 reasons above.
What are the benefits of eating dark chocolate?
I have already mentioned that dark chocolates aren’t bad for your health, so long as you eat the right ones. So, what kind of benefits can you get from eating dark chocolates
- Dark chocolate may prevent premature ageing
We are all going to age. No doubt about that.
But what you don’t want is accelerated aging. The free radical biology theory postulates that Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) is a culpable factor in the ageing process.
As it happens, we produce these ROS also called free radicals inevitably from our respiratory metabolic process. But, these oxygen free radicals aren’t benign. They are toxic to cells causing cellular damage and cellular dysfunction.
The metabolic processes producing these free radicals is an on-going process, not an event. It is thought that the cumulative damage is what partly leads to aging.
Having an antidote to these oxygen free radicals will therefore slow down the aging process. Antidote to these free radicals are antioxidants. Dark chocolate provides you with ammunition in radical fighting because of its high antioxidant levels.
By virtue of fighting oxidative stress, dark chocolate could be helping to dampen down inflammation in the body which is a bonus in itself.
Hence consumption of dark chocolate could help with premature aging through prevention of cellular damage from these free oxygen radicals.
2. Dark chocolate helps with mood issues – blues and depression
One of the commonest reasons people eat dark chocolate is to alter their mood.
Could be simple blues (low mood) or frank depression. Lots of people see dark chocolate as a natural anti-depressant. But is the perceived thought that dark chocolate is good for depression and anxiety actually true or is it a myth?
Dark chocolate has lots of natural phytochemicals in it. These phytochemicals have profound effects in the brain; but the two phytochemicals in dark chocolate worth mentioning are Phenylethylamine (PEA) and Anandamide.
Anandamide has been labelled the “bliss molecule”.
Anandamide is a fatty neurotransmitter in the brain. This molecule has its name derived from a Sanskrit word, Ananda. Ananda means “joy, happiness, delight”.
Anandamide binds to the same receptor that marijuana binds to in the brain. Once anandamide binds to the marijuana receptor (tetrahydrocannabinol receptor), it triggers a chemical reaction that makes the user “feel high”.
You won’t get the same type of “high” you get with when you smoke marijuana, but your mood will be lifted.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is the other molecule in dark chocolate worth talking about. Dark chocolate is made from cacao. The process of microbial fermentation of the cacao beans produces the phenylethylamine.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a brain stimulant in humans.
Phenylethylamine has also been labelled the “love drug” because of its potential to produce a feeling of being in love and its ability to arguably act as an aphrodisiac.
Phenylethylamine is the reason people see dark chocolate as an aphrodisiac. But there could be another explanation for dark chocolate stimulating sexual desire. Dark chocolate does cause an increase in blood flow to sexual organs as part of its global effect, for reasons I will explain shortly.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) at moderate levels is proven as a mood elevator. Dark chocolate contains phenylethylamine and it is one of the reason dark chocolate lifts your mood and makes you feel euphoric.
In fact, Phenylethylamine as a substance is now being marketed as a stand-alone supplement and they appear to be claiming 60% success rates in treating clinical depression.
Sometimes phenylethylamine (PEA) extract is used in conjunction with a conventional antidepressant for a synergistic effect for resistant cases of depression.
Whether the amount of phenylethylamine in dark chocolate is high enough to match that in a PEA extract with a view to getting similar anti-depression results, is difficult to say.
Does dark chocolate contain tryptophan?
A friend asked me the other day, if dark chocolate does contain tryptophan. Yes, dark chocolate contains tryptophan. Tryptophan facilitates serotonin production which is a vital neuronal transmitter – another mechanism by which dark chocolate alleviates low mood or frank depression.
If you combine all the activities of these substances in the brain, it is no surprise that some of us will consider dark chocolate as brain food.
3. Dark chocolate may help with Anxiety
Given the fact that dark chocolate is seen as brain food, could it help with anxiety?
A study carried out over a 2-week period using 74% dark chocolate seems to suggest that dark chocolate may ease anxiety.
Participants in the study were given 40 gm of dark chocolate every day for the 2 weeks. The participants were split up into high anxiety group and low anxiety group using validated psychology questionnaires.
The researchers found that the high anxiety group reported feeling less anxious. Further confirmation of their anxiety relief was the fact that this high anxiety group has significantly less stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline during the study period.
The study seems to suggest that the more severe your anxiety problem is, the more you are likely to respond to dark chocolate as a treatment for anxiety.
That dark chocolate may be good for anxiety control is shown in this animal experiment using substances similar to anandamide found in dark chocolate.
Whilst the flavanols and polyphenols in dark chocolate are protecting your nerve cells in the brain from oxidative stress and oxidative damage, these adjoining chemicals like anandamide promote new nerve formation resulting in anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.
4. Dark chocolate is good for fatigue and concentration
The phenylethylamine in dark chocolate is behaves similar to amphetamines. It is a stimulant. We have also established that anandamide in dark chocolate attaches to the same receptor that cannabis active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) attaches to.
Once attached, it sets off a chain of events that are stimulatory to the brain. With phenylethylamine increasing the speed of transmission between brain cells, it is not surprising that you can fight fatigue and stay alert by eating dark chocolate.
Your concentration level goes up with dark chocolate because, you have all of these chemical activities going on in your brain.
In addition to that, dark chocolate also contains theobromine. Theobromine is a xanthine molecule with a weak stimulatory effect.
The combined effects of theobromine, anandamide and phenylethylamine in dark chocolate eliminates fatigue, giving you high energy whilst boosting your attention and concentration levels at the same time.
5. Dark chocolate good for cognitive performance
As we age, more brain cells become inflamed and degenerate. Our ability to make new neurons (brain cells) also diminish. That’s one explanation as to why we experience cognitive decline as we get older.
So, if you could have a substance that has the potential to reduce the inflammation and promote new brain cell formation (neurogenesis), then of course, you have yourself a winner.
It so happens that the antioxidants in dark chocolate can stem the inflammation and anandamide can help with neurogenesis.
The implication is that dark chocolate may help preserve cognitive abilities; possibly prevent Alzheimer’s disease. As stated above, phenylethylamine is known to increase the speed of communication between nerve cells in the brain. Therefore, when you eat dark chocolate you boost focus plus you have the stimulatory effect of anandamide and theobromine.
This will make you become more alert, but does dark chocolate promote better cognitive function? This is a bit hit or miss. At least according to studies. There are conflicting outcomes from many studies regarding dark chocolate boosting cognitive function.
This study on post menopausal women using different concentrations of cocoa flavanols did not show any improvement in cognitive performance.
This one showed initial promise but the improvement in cognitive function by cocoa flavanols was blunted by exercise meaning exercise was just as effective.
However, I like this study that recruited 90 elderly participants giving them high, medium and low concentrations of cocoa flavanol drinks over an 8-week period.
There was significant improvement in cognitive performance with the cocoa flavanol drink. Something else noticeable in that study was, the higher the concentration of the cocoa drink, the better the cognitive outcome.
Whether the mental assessments tests were too rigorous for study participants in some of the studies that failed to demonstrate cognitive improvements is difficult to say. But there is good grounds to suggest that higher concentrations of dark chocolate may improve memory and cognition.
6. Dark chocolate a good source of magnesium
You need magnesium for a host of functions in the body. You need magnesium for nerve and muscle function.
Magnesium supports your immune system and provides support for bone metabolism too.
Dark chocolate is a rich source of magnesium. Consuming dark chocolate means you will be supporting all of those functions involving magnesium.
If you have muscular tension and feeling stressed out, having a bar of dark chocolate may help ease your tension.
7. Dark chocolate facilitates nitric oxide production and good for blood pressure
One recurring question I get asked is; is dark chocolate good for blood pressure or does dark chocolate lower blood pressure?
Turns out dark chocolate is good for blood pressure support. There are quite a number of studies to support the view that dark chocolate can help with blood pressure control (hypertension).
And you know what; you don’t even need a lot of dark chocolate to start getting the benefits of lower blood pressure. This study was one of the earlier studies that established the link between blood pressure and dark chocolate.
You only need 30 Calories of dark chocolate per day to get the blood pressure lowering benefits according to that study.
So, why does dark chocolate lower blood pressure? Answer: Nitric oxide. Yes, nitric oxide is the sole reason.
Nitric oxide is a substance that was the subject of a Nobel Prize for science in 1998.
Nitric oxide is a potent smooth muscle relaxant, in particular the muscles of the blood vessels.
Abundance of nitric oxide encourages blood to flow smoothly within the vessel. This facilitates a rich supply of oxygen and nutrients to various cells and tissues.
In every study carried out involving either cacao or its derivative, dark chocolate, there was never any circumstance where blood flow wasn’t increased. There was consistency across the board that cacao and dark chocolate improves arterial function by widening the lumen.
This proves the power of cacao and dark chocolate as an agent that is good for circulation and circulatory diseases.
The average flow diameter within the blood vessel was widened by drinking a cacao drink.
What does this mean?
It means you can expect the global blood pressure to be on the low side. Dark chocolate helps lower blood pressure.
This study on 32 sleep-deprived individuals showed a reduction in blood pressure after being fed flavanol-rich dark chocolate.
Incidentally in that study the dark chocolate preserved and restored working memory in these sleep deprived participants.
This meta-analysis of 13 studies concluded that dark chocolate was superior to placebo in lowering blood pressure.
Lower blood pressure obtained from eating dark chocolate has associated benefits.
- Dark chocolate is good for heart health
- Dark chocolate is good for circulatory diseases
- Dark chocolate is good for stroke prevention
- Dark chocolate is good for heart attack prevention
8. Dark chocolate is beneficial to cholesterol
Dark chocolate seems to confer a favourable cholesterol profile based on studies.
This meta-analysis looked at 10 clinical trials involving 320 individuals with study period spanning between 2 and 12 weeks using dark chocolate as the product.
In that meta-analysis, dark chocolate reduced total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) but no significant effect on HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) was seen.
Another study however found that cacao consumption produced a rise in HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) whilst reducing bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol).
The thinking is that the polyphenols antioxidants in the cacao or dark chocolate is responsible for the reduction in bad cholesterol.
A reduction in bad cholesterol is beneficial to the body. This finding supports the view that dark chocolate consumption helps lower your risk of stroke and heart attacks.
9. Dark chocolate may promote insulin sensitivity
We have established that the flavonoids and polyphenols in dark chocolate are useful weapons in the fight against oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has also been implicated in the origin of type 2 diabetes. So, dark chocolate would be a good fit in managing type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.
This review supports the view that the antioxidants in dark chocolate enhance insulin secretion and promote insulin sensitivity in peripheral tissues.
This piece talks about how the behaviour of the cells lining your blood vessels contribute immensely to the chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
If you can fix the malfunctioning of the cells lining the blood vessel wall (endothelium it is called) with flavanols in cacao and dark chocolate, you can see improvement in key markers of metabolic syndrome including insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.
There is more support here for the vessel wall relationship with insulin resistance. Malfunctioning of the endothelium (cells of the blood vessel wall) points to insulin resistance.
Flavonoids in cacao and dark chocolate can lower blood sugar through improved insulin sensitivity by correcting the malfunctioning of the endothelium. That review goes ahead to suggest that cacao or dark chocolate may help halt the progression of type 2 diabetes and overcoming insulin resistance in metabolic syndrome.
At this point I need to give a warning here especially when it comes to blood sugar control of diabetes and prediabetes using dark chocolate.
You have to be careful because a lot of the dark chocolates come pre-loaded with sugar which of course can make your diabetes worse.
In a sense, a dark chocolate that has a lot of sugar in it like the one with 41.5 gm of sugar in a 100-gm dark chocolate bar is the type you must avoid.
That type of dark chocolate would make your diabetic sugar control worse. The benefits of improving insulin sensitivity will be cancelled out by such a heavy sugar content. Always read the label.
As you can tell, dark chocolate is a derivative of cacao, one of natures best gifts to us. We can exploit it to our advantage. There are other health benefits of dark chocolate like skin protection from UV damage, the availability of iron needed for red cell production in the body.
Problem is; chocolate manufacturers who in a desperate attempt to make their product appealing and to compete favourably in the marketplace, will keep upping the sugar content in their dark chocolate products.
The net result is the calorie content of the dark chocolate keeps going up and up. The point is dark chocolate is a calorie-dense food. It is not a product to pig on. You may have to sweat it out in the gym afterwards if you gorge on it in excess.
Be sensible. Read the label. The less the sugar content in your dark chocolate the better. That’s why I would advise going for 90% or higher to actually get these benefits.
Suggested further reading:
How to Avoid Complicated Diet Rules and Prevent Rebound Weight GAIN