I have confessed before to having a sweet tooth. Fortunately, there is at least one sweet food that has some health benefits. I’m talking about dark chocolate. It has long been recognized that dark chocolate can have a positive effect on health, and there are several reasons for this. So in this post I’ll look at some of dark chocolate’s health benefits and the nutrients that are responsible for them.
Dark chocolate is well-known as a high-antioxidant food. The main antioxidants in dark chocolate are called flavanols. Flavanols are also found in apples, red wine, peanuts, onions, and tea. Like other antioxidants, flavanols help the body to repair damage to cells caused by free radicals (unstable molecules) that are formed as a result of everyday metabolic processes and exposure to environmental toxins and to UV rays from the sun.
Antioxidants also exhibit several protective effects on the cardiovascular system. Free radical damage to arterial walls, for example, can cause LDL (“bad”) cholesterol to form plaque in the arteries. Antioxidants can prevent such free radical damage and therefore keep plaque from building up in blood vessels. Flavanols in particular help protect the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow to the brain and heart, and decreasing blood platelets’ ability to stick together and clot (source).
Dark chocolate helps protect blood vessels in another interesting way. A study published last year provided evidence that “good” bacteria in the digestive system actually ferment the antioxidant compounds in dark chocolate and convert them into molecules that are more easily absorbed into the body. These smaller molecules appear to exhibit anti-inflammatory activity. According to the lead researcher, “when these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke.”
Of course, these anti-inflammatory compounds can only be produced if you have high numbers of good bacteria in your gut. There are many other foods that support the health of good bacteria, including berries, beans, garlic, oats, and most unpeeled fruits and vegetables. For more information on these so-called “prebiotic” foods, see my post on 7 Ways to Boost Your Immunity Naturally.
Dark chocolate also appears to help mitigate the effects of stress. A 2014 study found that healthy men who consumed 50 grams (which is admittedly quite a bit) of high-flavanoid dark chocolate were significantly less stressed when doing a high-stress task than those who consumed dark chocolate without flavanoids. One of the study’s authors noted that dark chocolate “buffers endocrine stress responses to acute phychosocial stress” (source). Another study, conducted in 2009, found that dark chocolate helped relieve subjective stress in participants (source).
Lowering stress is good for your skin, too. High levels of stress can increase the rate of breakdown of collagen, a protein that helps give skin its structure. But cocoa helps reduce stress hormones, leading to decreased collagen breakdown and fewer wrinkles (source).
As I mentioned above, antioxidants can help prevent and repair the damage caused by exposure to UV rays. The flavanols in dark chocolate have been shown to help the skin protect itself from sunburn and redness (source). Chocolate that is low in flavanols, such as milk chocolate, does not have the same effect (source). For more on protecting your skin from the inside, see In and Out Sunscreen.
What About Those Percentages?
It is important to note that not all dark chocolate is created equal. The way in which cocoa beans are processed plays a role in whether or not a chocolate bar contains high levels of beneficial flavanols. As a general rule, the higher the percentage of cocoa, the more flavanols in the chocolate. There are, however, exceptions. ConsumerLab.com, an independent tester of health foods, recently found, for example, that a bar with 72% cocoa actually had more flavanols than one that contained 85% cocoa (source).
But there are several more general guidelines you can follow when choosing dark chocolate:
* Make sure that sugar is not the first ingredient listed; it should follow the cocoa ingredients.
* Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa.
* Avoid “Dutching.” Dutch processing of cocoa uses alkali and greatly decreases the amount of flavanols in the chocolate (source).
With so many wonderful health benefits, you can feel good about indulging in a little bit of dark chocolate on most days. And there’s one other great thing about it: dark chocolate is generally much lower in sugar than most other chocolates. Which means that I can satisfy my sweet tooth without overdoing it on the sugar. So go ahead and enjoy dark chocolate; it’ll do your heart (and skin and stress levels) good.
“Dark Chocolate: The Best and Worst Brands.” Healthy Eater. Web. 22 February 2015. http://healthyeater.com/dark-chocolate-best-and-worst
“Eating Chocolate Can Significantly Protect the Skin from UV Light.” PubMed. September 2009. Web. 24 February 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19735513
“Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on the Prothrombotic Response to Acute Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Men.” PubMed. 11 September 2014. Web. 26 February 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25208561
“Heart Health Benefits of Chocolate.” Cleveland Clinic. January 2012. Web. 19 February 2015. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/benefits-of-chocolate
“Should I Eat Dark Chocolate?” Time. 20 November 2014. Web. 23 February 2015. http://time.com/3593624/benefits-of-dark-chocolate/
“The Precise Reason for the Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate: Mystery Solved.” American Chemical Society. 18 March 2014. Web. 20 February 2015. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2014/march/the-precise-reason-for-the-health-benefits-of-dark-chocolate-mystery-solved.html
“5 Guilt-Free Beauty Benefits of Dark Chocolate.” Huffington Post. 6 August 2013. Web. 20 February 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/06/dark-chocolate-beauty-benefits_n_3710027.html
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