Seldom do we romanticize a food the way we do chocolate. No matter what form it takes, chocolate is seen as an indulgence or a guilty pleasure. And yet, unlike some other hedonistic culinary options, certain types of chocolate are known to impart helpful health benefits. So which is it: indulgent treat or wrongly-maligned superfood?
The answer, as is the case with so many things, lies in moderation. Chocolate — particularly the kind we see here in America — tends to be high in sugar, fat, and calories. If you eat a ton of it, those ingredients will come back to haunt you. In addition, the kind of chocolate you eat is important: As the cocoa percentage drops in a chocolate bar, so do the nutritional benefits. Here’s how it breaks down:
What Is Chocolate?
I recently went on a tour of an artisanal chocolate factory in Cozumel, Mexico to see how the ancient Mayans — who took their chocolate seriously — made their chocolate. Using the cacao pods harvested from cacao trees, they ground the seeds by hand on a basalt stone. The Mayans would then mix this powder with a little chili pepper, cinnamon, and hot water to make what they called the “drink of the gods.” This early form of hot chocolate was extremely bitter, until the Spanish came and mixed it with sugar or honey, and voilá — the sweet treat we are familiar with was born.
The chocolate we eat today has a little more going on. Raw cacao nibs are ground to get cocoa paste. When you remove the cocoa butter (fat) from the cocoa paste, you are left with cocoa solids, which are dried to become cocoa powder. The darker the chocolate, the higher percentage of cocoa solids it contains. Dark chocolate usually has anywhere from 50-90% cocoa solids, while milk chocolate hovers between 10- and 30%. White chocolate (an abomination, if you ask me!) is pure cocoa butter, or fat.
The Health Benefits of Chocolate
All of chocolate’s nutritional value is in the cocoa solids; cocoa butter will not confer any health benefits whatsoever. However, dark chocolate has a good variety of minerals and polyphenolic compounds — such as antioxidants and flavonoids — which can protect your cells from inflammation, improve brain function, and boost your immune and cardiovascular health.
The antioxidants in dark chocolate have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of clotting, and increase blood circulation to the heart, which lowers the risks of stroke, coronary heart disease and death from heart disease. In one study, cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity than any other fruits that were tested, which included blueberries and acai berries. To put it into terms we can use: a review of studies revealed that eating dark chocolate three times per week lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease by 9%.
Flavanols present in dark chocolate prevent the immune system from going into overdrive unnecessarily (which is what we refer to as allergies.) This reduces oxidative stress as well, which is an imbalance caused by cells fighting against free radicals.
Researchers have also been able to confirm that eating dark chocolate reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a devil of a hormone, often blamed for weight gain and other stress-related side effects.
Flavanols also have a positive impact on brain function, with studies showing that they can improve reaction time, visual-spatial awareness, and boost memory.
One of the most highly touted benefits of dark chocolate is protecting against high cholesterol. The flavanol lycopene found in our new favorite snack was found to significantly decrease levels of total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Additionally, even though it feels a bit contradictory, eating dark chocolate can help combat diabetes by reducing insulin resistance. (It also contains a fair amount of sugar, however, which can have the opposite effect.)
Chocolate is a wonder; you can enjoy it in savory dishes or delectable desserts. And enjoy it, you should! But, if you want to reap any health benefits from this superfruit, the darker the better, and you need to be careful to enjoy it in moderation.