I think I’ve already confessed being a chocoholic? Most people don’t believe me, but those who know me close, they know that I can’t be with a bar of chocolate in the same house. Of course, there are exceptions – I wouldn’t touch just any chocolate as I have my own list of likes and dislikes as well as allergies, but you get the idea. Love. Chocolate.
For years I thought that chocolate was my guilty pleasure, but then, thanks to the advances in nutritional sciences and research, it turned out that chocolate has a place in a healthy diet. Even more so, it deserves a place. But of course we are talking about dark chocolate here, 70% or more.
Why Dark Chocolate?
And why 70%?
There are many varieties of dark chocolate. Traditionally, dark chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. Higher % corresponds to a darker colour and more bitter taste because there is less sugar. Having less sugar is partly responsible for making dark chocolate better than milk chocolate, but this is not the only reason.
Dark chocolate is defined as having a minimum of 35% cocoa solids, while milk chocolate must have a minimum of 25%, but in Ireland and the UK chocolates with just 20% cocoa solids are sold as milk chocolate – this is an exception to the EU regulations, which label such chocolates as a ‘family milk chocolate’ elsewhere in Europe.
But despite us being sold too milky milk chocolate, we are also sometimes sold a milky dark chocolate! That is, if you look at dark chocolate with less than 60% cocoa solids you may sometimes find that there is milk in its ingredients list. And if you look at dark chocolate which is less than 50% cocoa solids, you may find that there is almost 50% sugar. This is not a definition of healthy dark chocolate.
So if you do want to have the healthy dark chocolate in your diet, be sure to get one with at least 70% cocoa solids as there will be no milk and much-much less sugar.
The Milk Chocolate Trap
When you hear an advertisement for milk chocolate, especially the one that is aimed at children, like Kinder chocolate, they boast about more milk in their chocolate. Advertisers and manufacturers use it as a marketing strategy: More milk = more calcium = better for children. But don’t be so quick to believe it true. Milk in chocolate is a bad source of calcium, as caffeine in chocolate appears to impair calcium absorption when the two are taken together.
Last year Harvard School of Public Health has published its stance on Dairy and Calcium after a thorough review of years of research and studies, stating that milk and dairy products are not even the best sources of calcium. There are several reasons for this claim, the main being that high intake of dairy products corresponds with higher risks of certain cancers, as well as retinol, the natural form of vitamin A, and saturated fat content in milk are actually known to weaken the bones. So bear in mind that milk in your chocolate may be totally useless.
Moreover, milk in your chocolate may actually negate the health benefits that cocoa may offer, as it tends to interfere with the awesome work that antioxidants and other phytonutrients do. Another important thing to note is that milk contains sugar. Of course, it is a naturally occurring sugar, but it still adds up to all the sugar that is already there. So skip that milk chocolate next time and get yourself a proper dark one.
Why is Dark Chocolate good for you?
Cocoa beans are nutritious. Thanks to them, 70-85% dark chocolate contains B-complex vitamins and minerals, such as Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc, topped with powerful antioxidants for your maximum benefit. Among other goodness, it contains up to 10% dietary fibre, some protein and unsaturated fat. Even though I wouldn’t rely on chocolate as a source of macronutrients, it’s just worth noting that chocolate is not all about sugar and saturated fat.
The phytonutrients dark chocolate contains are of particular interest because they are responsible for most of the health benefits dark chocolate has to offer. These phytonutrients are various flavanols, polyphenols, epicatechins and catechins, caffeine and theobromine.
It’s also important to note that as a source of caffeine, dark chocolate needs to be limited, especially if you have to watch your caffeine intake due to health reasons. But it could still be enjoyed in moderation, if your doctor gives you the green light.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate may lower risks of certain cancers.
Thanks to the mentioned above antioxidants, dark chocolate is a free radical scavenger, meaning that it neutralises harmful oxidants (or free radicals) in your body that are known to trigger some cancerous growths. This article reviews the effects of cocoa on colon cancer and suggests that cocoa and dark chocolate in small regular amounts may prevent or slow down the progression of colon cancer.
Dark chocolate may lower risk of diabetes.
It turns out that the compounds found in cocoa and dark chocolate may improve insulin sensitivity, thus reducing the risks of diabetes in healthy people with no pre-existing health conditions, one study found. It’s worth to note that they were looking at long-term moderate consumption of 2-6 servings of dark chocolate per week. Consuming more than 1 serving per day or less than 2 servings per week did not show significant risk reduction.
Dark chocolate may improve blood pressure.
For centuries, dark chocolate has been considered a vasodilator, meaning that it can widen the blood vessels and lower the blood pressure. This effect has been observed in both diabetic and hypertensive patients and cardiovascular high-risk patients. The results are similar – there is a decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure associated with moderate consumption of dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate may protect skin from UV radiation.
Caffeine and flavanols in dark chocolate offer this wonderful protective effect. This study says that conventional chocolate, though, does not offer the same benefits. The chocolate must be flavanol-rich, so the darker the better.
Dark chocolate may boost your cognitive function.
And this is actually amazing news! Research has found that cocoa flavanols may improve general cognition, attention, processing speed and memory, thanks to cocoa’s ability to increase cerebral blood flow and stimulate the brain and central nervous system. It can even give you an immediate boost when you are fatigued or sleep-deprived. It may also have a neuroprotective effect and potentially decrease risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well as other neurodegenerative diseases.
Dark chocolate may help reduce stress.
Chocolate has long been known to boost the mood. Maybe it is due to some compounds that affect your serotonin levels, or maybe it’s just the fact that many of us enjoy chocolate and this has the immediate psychological effect. But there actually have been a study looking into the effects of dark chocolate on stress-related metabolism, and the results have shown that just in 2 weeks of daily consumption of dark chocolate (40 g in the study) positively impacted their subjects, leading to the reduction of stress-associated hormones.
Dark chocolate is good for your heart.
It turns out that the good bacteria in your gut ferments the dark chocolate into anti-inflammatory compounds making it good for your heart. The flavanols in dark chocolate also may prevent or reverse arterial stiffness thus reducing the risks of atherosclerosis. It’s also worth adding that a cohort study in Swedish men found that moderate regular consumption of dark chocolate (3-6 servings per week) was associated with decreased incidence of heart failure. Awesome finding, if you ask me!
Dark chocolate may boost your athletic performance.
Great news for athletes and regular exercisers, switching just one of your daily snacks to 40 g dark chocolate may significantly improve your performance and endurance, because it increases the level of nitric oxide, which makes oxygen consumption during exercise more efficient.
Dark chocolate may prevent weight gain.
One study, that is described extensively here, has found that particular oligomers in cocoa have a great anti-obesogenic potential, preventing fat mass accumulation and weight gain in mice who were fed a high fat diet (60% fat) that otherwise led to a significant fat gain. So if you’re watching your weight, dark chocolate in moderation is the way to go!
Dark chocolate may have an anti-ageing effect.
Given that it is full of antioxidants and other useful compounds, dark chocolate may delay the ageing process for a number of reasons: oxidants are known to cause DNA damage, which is considered to be one of the causes of premature ageing, and antioxidants can successfully neutralise those oxidants, reducing the oxidative stress and DNA damage. Another common cause of premature ageing is the damage from the UV radiation, and dark chocolate may protect you from that, significantly reducing your risk of premature ageing. The anti-inflammatory properties of dark chocolate reduce inflammation and cell damage even further. Its ability to act on blood vessels can stimulate blood flow, which is also essential for your skin and the body in general. And last, but not least, stress is also a major factor in ageing, and thanks to the flavanols dark chocolate has got you covered.
Phew! That was a long one to research, but a fun one to write, I have to say. As a true chocolate lover I enjoyed every bit of this research just as much as I enjoy every bit of my chocolate. No matter whether you are a dark chocolate lover or not, I think I’ve given you 10 good reasons to love it. It’s only a matter of finding the one you would actually enjoy, because brand to brand the tastes differ a lot. It’s also worth paying attention to different flavour combinations, as dark chocolate may come in combinations with chilli, orange, sea salt (my fave!) and many others. Just make sure you read the ingredients – there should be no milk and sugar shouldn’t be the first nor second in the list. Also beware the fructose-glucose syrups and other sugary additives – they are cheap substitutes that can be very detrimental to health and would almost certainly negate the awesome benefits dark chocolate can offer. I also don’t believe that any reputable manufacturer will use those if their aim was to deliver a true quality chocolate.
I hope you enjoyed this post.