Health Benefits Of Dark Chocolate According to Research

  • Tiah Jhan Jei Bachelor of Science - BS, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, The University of Sheffield, UK
  • Richard Stephens Doctor of Philosophy(PhD), St George's, University of London

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About dark chocolate

Chocolate is one food item that is consumed and enjoyed on every occasion of our lives. Celebrating something? Chocolate. Sad? Chocolate. Stressed? Chocolate. As much as chocolate satisfies our taste buds, what if I tell you that it also carries numerous health benefits?

Unbelievable? I know. 

Dark chocolate has more added health benefits for humans than any other type of chocolate. People all around the world have been consuming chocolate since as early as 460 AD. It was initially consumed for its medicinal purposes or used as a medium to carry other medicines. 

Dark chocolate is derived from cacao pods, which are taken from the Theobroma cacao tree. These cacao pods are larger than the size of your palm, and cocoa beans are extracted from them.  In a complex chemical process, these are then fermented, roasted and dried before being ground up to make cocoa. The cocoa is then further refined to give you the chocolate in liquid form, which is known as cocoa liquor, or solid form, cocoa powder. Upon further processing and separation of cocoa butter from liquor and mixing in the cocoa mass and sugar, you get chocolate in the solid form that we typically eat.

Dark chocolate contains a high percentage of cocoa and less sugar and milk. Typically, dark chocolate has 50-80% cocoa, and milk chocolate has 10-50% cocoa. The greater the amount of cocoa in a bar of chocolate, the more benefits it carries. Milk chocolates have more sugar and milk and less cocoa, making them a less healthy snack. 

Nutritional value of dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a complex food and contains many bioactive substances and fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, fibre and antioxidants such as polyphenols, including tannins and flavonoids.1

Fatty acids 

The fatty acids present in dark chocolate are in the form of cocoa butter. It contains a mixture of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. The saturated fatty acids are stearic acid and palmitic acid. It is known that saturated fatty acids are not beneficial for health but rather helps in elevating the cholesterol levels and low-density lipids (LDL) in the body, leading to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. However, studies have shown that stearic acid is the only saturated fatty acid that works the other way around; it does not elevate the serum lipid levels as much as the other saturated fatty acids can. One-third of all lipid (fat) in dark chocolate is accounted for by stearic acid, and since it has a neutral cholesterolemic response for humans, it does not raise much concern.

Minerals

Dark chocolate contains all the essential minerals that are required to maintain vascular health, such as copper, magnesium, potassium and iron (source: Harvard University).

  • Copper is utilized in many functions of our body, such as glucose metabolism, iron transfer, brain development and child growth. Dark chocolate (70-85%) contains about 31% of the total RDA (recommended daily allowance) for an adult per 100 kcal serving. 
  • Dark chocolate contains 36 mg of magnesium per 100 kcal serving, which is essential for protein synthesis, muscle relaxation, energy production and control of hypertension.
  • Potassium protects against hypertension and leads to a low cardiovascular system-related mortality rate. Chocolate is significantly low in potassium, but dark chocolate contains 114 mg of potassium per 100 kcal serving.
  • Iron is one of the most essential minerals required by the body for many of its functions, and dark chocolate provides 25% of the total RDA for an adult per 100 kcal serving.

Fibre

Although cocoa beans are rich in fibre, most of the fibre is lost during processing. However, dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa content) provides 1.7g of fibre per 100 kcal serving. The majority of the fibre is insoluble, which is associated with weight maintenance and reduced risk of type-2 diabetes mellitus. 4

Polyphenols

Antioxidants are compounds present in some food that prevent the cells of our body from damage; polyphenols are an example of a class of antioxidants. Cocoa in dark chocolate contains a variety of polyphenols but flavonoids in abundance. Flavonoids, with their antioxidant activity play a major role in the various mechanisms of our body like immunoregulatory activity, cardioprotective activity and protection of the vascular endothelium. Flavonoids are responsible for the bitter taste of cocoa; they come in contact with the salivary proteins and impart this bitter taste. Dark chocolate has significantly 30 times more antioxidants than green tea.1,2

Health benefits of dark chocolate

Cardiovascular health

Dark chocolate is said to reduce the risk of heart attack and lower the risk of stroke. Studies suggest that eating dark chocolate at least once per week is associated with an 8% reduction in the risk of blocked arteries. It has also been found that eating 1oz (28.4g) of chocolate every day is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. As mentioned above, flavonoids play a major role in maintaining cardiovascular health by producing nitric oxide, which helps in lowering blood pressure and causes blood vessels to relax. 2,3,5

Cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol in our body: good and bad cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The HDL helps lower LDL in our body and hence works as a protective factor for us. Cocoa provides this good cholesterol and hence is beneficial to the vascular health of our body.10

Improve brain function

Dark chocolate not only satisfies your taste buds but also helps enhance your brain function through flavonoids. A subtype of flavonoids called flavonols helps increase blood oxygen levels in your brain and prevent various brain-related disorders like Alzheimer's, Parkinsonism and dementia. 9

Reduces diabetes risk

Since dark chocolate contains less sugar as compared to milk chocolate, it is significantly healthier and doesn’t cause a spike in the blood glucose level. The increased percentage of cocoa in dark chocolate is also said to reduce the risk of developing type-2 diabetes through the actions of flavonoids, either increasing the insulin production in the body or increasing the insulin sensitivity of our body. 4,5

Protects the skin

Dark chocolate contains various antioxidants such as polyphenols, flavonols and catechins, and it is no secret that antioxidants are one of our skin’s best friends.1,2 The antioxidants in cocoa, along with other health benefits, help our skin by protecting it from UV radiation and have a positive effect on wrinkles and skin elasticity. A study also concluded that for dark chocolate to show its effects on your skin, you should start eating dark chocolate 12 weeks before hitting the beach on summer morning.8

Uplifts your mood 

We all feel our moods lift after eating dark chocolate, and scientists believe there’s a solid reason behind that. Flavanoids release endorphins in our body that keep us in mental equilibrium and it is also said to induce the production of the ‘happy hormone’ ‘serotonin’ that keeps us in a jolly mood.7

It helps with gut health.

Polyphenols in dark chocolate have a way of targeting the bad microbes of the gut and thus maintain gut health when taken in moderation.

Further considerations

When choosing dark chocolate for yourself, always go for chocolate with a maximum cocoa percentage preferably, 50-80%. The more the cocoa content, the more are the benefits. As the bitterness of the chocolate decreases, cocoa decreases and sugar content increases.

Likewise, beware of any added flavours in your dark chocolate, the flavours increase the sugar content which is not good for your gut bacteria as well as blood glucose levels. This counteracts all the benefits that cocoa carries.

No matter the number of benefits that dark chocolate comes with, one thing that cannot be ignored is its high caloric content. If not taken in moderation, it can lead to weight gain.

FAQs

Should I eat dark chocolate every day?

Studies suggest that eating dark chocolate every day is good for health, but only if it is taken in moderation. One should not eat more than 2oz (56.8g) each day.

How much dark chocolate should I eat?

Every day, one can consume 1-2oz (28.4 - 56.8g) of dark chocolate; more than that is not advised because, no matter what, processing leads to an increase in the content of sugar in dark chocolate, definitely less than milk chocolate though but an excess of anything is not good for the body.

Does dark chocolate raise or lower sugar levels?

Studies suggest that dark chocolate has been proven beneficial in the prevention of type 2 diabetes by either increasing the production of insulin or increasing insulin sensitivity in the body. Since dark chocolate contains less sugar, it does not significantly increase the blood sugar level as much as milk chocolate.

Does dark chocolate increase cholesterol?

The good news to all chocolate lovers is that dark chocolate does not increase bad cholesterol, rather it increases the production of good cholesterol which in turn reduces bad cholesterol levels in the body.

Are there any risks or side effects associated with dark chocolate?

Yes, according to Livestrong.com, research has shown that the caffeine content of dark chocolate is much higher than milk chocolate, and this can cause problems such as increased heart rate, diarrhoea, anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and dehydration. Caffeine can also cause insomnia, so you should avoid eating dark chocolate before you go to sleep.  In addition, the oxalate in dark chocolate can increase your chances of kidney stones, while the tyramine in dark chocolate may trigger migraines.

Summary

Dark chocolate is a snack that is enjoyed by every age group and on every occasion. How wonderful it would be to know that the snack you enjoy the most is also beneficial for your body. 

Dark chocolate, because of its increased cacao/cocoa content, carries many health benefits to not just one system of the body but to many areas.

Cocoa contains many minerals, a high percentage of fibre, copper, magnesium and antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that prevent cell damage in our body, and dark chocolate contains 30 times more antioxidants than green tea. Some of the main antioxidants found in abundance are flavonoids, polyphenols and catechins. Flavonoid is a key antioxidant to protect your body's cardiovascular system against heart disease and high blood pressure. Flavonoids also enhance a person's mood and play a major role in maintaining the health of the brain. 

Although dark chocolate has abundant benefits, it is only beneficial if you consume dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa. The more cocoa there is, the more benefits there are and the less sugar content. 

References

  1. Panache AN, Diwan AD, Chandra SR. Flavonoids: an overview. J Nutr Sci [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Feb 15]; 5:e47. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5465813/.
  2. Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxid Redox Signal [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2024 Feb 15]; 15(10):2779–811. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696435/.
  3. Corti R, Flammer AJ, Hollenberg NK, Lüscher TF. Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2024 Feb 15]; 119(10):1433–41. Available from: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.827022.
  4. Ramos S, Martín MA, Goya L. Effects of Cocoa Antioxidants in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Antioxidants (Basel) [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2024 Feb 15]; 6(4):84. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5745494/.
  5. Balzer J, Rassaf T, Heiss C, Kleinbongard P, Lauer T, Merx M, et al. Sustained Benefits in Vascular Function Through Flavanol-Containing Cocoa in Medicated Diabetic Patients: A Double-Masked, Randomized, Controlled Trial. Journal of the American College of Cardiology [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2024 Feb 15]; 51(22):2141–9. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109708010279.
  6. Kido M, Ando K, Onozato ML, Tojo A, Yoshikawa M, Ogita T, et al. Protective Effect of Dietary Potassium Against Vascular Injury in Salt-Sensitive Hypertension. Hypertension [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2024 Feb 18]; 51(2):225–31. Available from: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.107.098251.
  7. Shin J-H, Kim C-S, Cha L, Kim S, Lee S, Chae S, et al. Consumption of 85% cocoa dark chocolate improves mood in association with gut microbial changes in healthy adults: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 19]; 99:108854. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955286321002746.
  8. Samanta S, Sarkar T, Chakraborty R, Rebezov M, Shariati MA, Thiruvengadam M, et al. Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches. Curr Res Food Sci [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 19]; 5:1916–43. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9589144/.
  9. Sasaki A, Mizuno K, Morito Y, Oba C, Nakamura K, Natsume M, et al. The effects of dark chocolate on cognitive performance during cognitively demanding tasks: A randomized, single-blinded, crossover, dose-comparison study. Heliyon [Internet]. 2024 [cited 2024 Feb 19]; 10(2):e24430. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405844024004614.
  10. Amoah I, Lim JJ, Osei EO, Arthur M, Cobbinah JC, Tawiah P. Effect of Cocoa Beverage and Dark Chocolate Intake on Lipid Profile in People Living with Normal and Elevated LDL Cholesterol: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Dietetics [Internet]. 2023

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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