The Surprising Health Benefits of Chocolate
By Fiona Riddle
You’ve probably come across a headline or two along the lines of “new study reveals chocolate is good for your health” or “eating chocolate everyday will help you live longer.” And who doesn’t want to believe that something as delicious as chocolate can actually be beneficial to eat every day?
When you think of chocolate, the first thing that might come to mind is a Hershey’s Bar, and while this classic chocolate bar is not the healthiest choice (a single bar contains 60g of sugar), there are actually many health benefits to consuming the key ingredient that makes up chocolate: cacao.
Cacao grows on evergreen trees in large pods with two edible parts: the seed and the fruit. What is commonly known as chocolate is produced from the seed, which you will often see labeled as cocoa on your favorite chocolate products. Cocoa has been roasted and turned into a powder before it is used to make chocolate or sold as simply cocoa powder. Cacao itself is the raw, less processed version of cocoa and can also be found in a number of products such as chocolate bars, cacao nibs (crushed cacao beans) and 100% cacao chocolate chips.
Cacao contains numerous essential minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. such as magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese. A serving of cacao powder contains 25% of your recommended daily intake of magnesium, which the typical American diet is severely lacking in. Magnesium is required for a number of bodily functions including muscle and nerve function, energy production and blood pressure regulation. A 3-tablespoon serving of cacao nibs contains 4g of protein and 8g of fiber with no added sugar, making it a great option for topping yogurt bowls or adding to smoothies.
Among the many different nutrients in cacao, there is a rich concentration of flavanols, which are essentially plant nutrient compounds. The consumption of these cocoa flavanols has been shown to reduce age-related cognitive decline. Research also suggests that adding these flavanols to your diet by enjoying cocoa products might reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. These benefits are most likely due to its positive effects on the vascular endothelium, the protective barrier in the interior lining of blood vessels. In other words, eating cacao might help to keep your brain sharp as you age by protecting your arteries!
If you’re looking for an energy boost, cacao can offer stimulant effects similar to those of coffee (without the jitters or crashes) thanks to its theobromine content. The consumption of theobromine has been shown to positively enhance mood and alertness. Theobromine also gives chocolate its characteristically bitter flavor, and consequently dark chocolate has a more bitter taste than milk chocolate as it contains higher levels of theobromine. While there is also a small amount of caffeine found in cacao, it is likely not enough to have any noticeable impact upon consumption. Interestingly, however, the combination of caffeine and theobromine may have an impact on an individual’s liking of it.
Now the question is, should you start eating chocolate every day and adding it to your daily supplement routine? The answer is a little tricky as all chocolate products are not created equal. Most chocolate you see on the shelves contains large amounts of added sugars, overconsumption of which has been linked with increased heart disease risk as well as weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. Any benefits from consuming chocolate would most likely be outweighed if your main source comes from ultra-processed candy.
Another caveat: just because a product is chocolate flavored, does not necessarily make it a “healthy” choice when you consider the ingredients as a whole (think cocoa puffs). Additionally, cocoa beans undergo extensive processing before they are turned into chocolate, which removes nearly all of the beneficial flavanols previously discussed.
The healthiest way to enjoy all of the wonderful benefits of cacao is to consume options that are made of 100% cacao such as the beans, nibs, and powder. Cacao beans, nibs and powder are solely made of cacao from the seeds, however, chocolate products typically contain some cocoa or cacao butter as well. If you’re purchasing cocoa powder, choose a natural option in favor of Dutch-processed versions which have been washed in a neutralizing solution further stripping it of nutrients.
Since these products do not contain any sweeteners, they are much more bitter than “typical” chocolate and may be an acquired taste for some. These options are, however, the highest in nutrients and antioxidants as they are the most unadulterated. If 100% is a bit too bitter for your taste, look for dark chocolate options that still have a high percentage of cacao with minimal sweetener. Many brands make 75% cacao or higher chocolate bars with only a few grams of added sugar per serving. Baking with cacao powder is another great way to include some of its nutrients and benefits such as in these healthier fudgy brownies.
So the next time you’re craving something sweet or needing a midday pick-me-up, try eating a few squares of dark chocolate instead of another highly sweetened coffee beverage. If you are looking for heart and brain health benefits, however, simply eating a chocolate bar probably won’t help much. Opt for cacao from the whole bean, nibs, or a powder for the most nutrients and highest cocoa flavanol content.
Fiona Riddle is a Certified Health Coach with a degree in Psychology from UCLA. She is passionate about a holistic approach to health when working with her private coaching clients. She is an avid cook, constantly creating and sharing new recipes on her Instagram (@feelgoodwithfi) to showcase simple clean home cooking. She has helped clients take their health into their own hands and successfully boost their energy and confidence through sustainable lifestyle changes. www.feelgoodwithfi.com