It goes without question that cocoa - the primary ingredient in high-quality dark chocolate - is a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. So, is chocolate a health food?
Before we jump in, it’s important to point out that the health benefits discussed here are directly linked to cocoa rather than chocolate en masse. Depending on how cocoa is made into chocolate and what extra ingredients are added to the mix, chocolate can either have surprising health benefits or be high in fat, sugar, and calories.
Assuming that we’re strictly talking about high-quality dark chocolate - by this we mean chocolate that is on average 70% dark chocolate or higher, the TLDR answer is that dark chocolate in moderation is believed to have several health benefits as shown in recent medical studies. These health benefits range from improved heart health and blood flow to better cognitive function.
Dark chocolate is a great source for polyphenols, specifically a type of polyphenol called flavanols. Like other polyphenols, cocoa flavanols in chocolate have an antioxidant effect in our bodies. They prevent and repair damage to our bodies from free radicals, which cause cell damage and lead to a variety of health problems and diseases.
In fact, studies have proven that cocoa is one of the leading dietary antioxidants, even more effective than acai, blueberries, and other superfruits that are known for their high concentrations of flavanols.
Studies have shown that a consistent intake of cocoa flavanols from eating dark chocolate reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.
As an antioxidant, cocoa flavanols inhibit the oxidation of bad cholesterol (LDL) by preventing and repairing free radicals. Excessive free radicals produce oxidized LDL, and this causes the buildup of plaque in the arteries which leads to a domino effect of poor heart health. Clogged arteries means decreased blood flow, which can result in a heart attack or stroke.
One telling observational study on Kuna Indians showed that the Kuna had a low mortality rate from cardiovascular health complications. This was attributed to their diet that included enormous amounts of cacao everyday. Relatively, the Kuna who migrated away from their native villages and into Panama City changed their diet and lost these health benefits.
Moreover, Iowa Women’s Health Study observed in 489 women that those who had a flavanol-rich diet showed decreased risk of coronary heart disease. Another study in 470 elderly men linked cocoa intake to reduced cardiovascular mortality by 50 percent.
Cocoa flavanols in chocolate activate the production of nitric oxide in our bodies. Nitric oxide is crucial to blood vessel health and circulation. It keeps the lining of our arteries smooth and relaxes the muscle cells in the artery wall, thereby improving blood flow and ultimately lowering blood pressure. Overall, this strengthens the heart and brain that rely on healthy blood vessels.
Beyond this, nitric oxide and its effects on blood circulation is also known to help with erectile dysfunction, better performance when exercising, and relief for sore muscles.
Studies also show that eating chocolate improves cognitive function, possibly because of improved blood flow to and in the brain.
Arguably, a temporary boost in attention and alertness could be due to theobromine and the small amount of caffeine found in chocolate. However, one study conducted with 90 elderly people showed that after eight weeks of consuming certain amounts of cocoa flavanols there were notable improvements to cognitive functions, such as attention, executive function, and memory.
Other studies used brain imaging or measured electrical activity in the brain after test subjects consumed cocoa drinks. These tests showed improved blood flow in the brain, oxygen levels, and nerve function. Although some of these findings aim to link cocoa consumption to delaying the onset of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or Parkinson’s disease, the results are not conclusive and more studies will need to be done.
The best option for adding chocolate as a health food to your diet would be through natural cocoa powder, because it has the highest concentration of cocoa flavanols. However, cocoa powder is very bitter and may turn you off completely. It’s an acquired taste similar to drinking coffee. At first, you might start with a frappuccino and gradually work your way towards reducing the sugar and cream, until one day you can enjoy your coffee black.
The COSMOS participants are consuming about 750mg of cocoa flavanols per day. To consume this amount of flavanols from chocolate, you would have to eat 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder, or 4.75 ounces of dark chocolate (about 2-3 bars of craft chocolate), or 2.5 pounds of milk chocolate (more than 12 bars of craft chocolate). The calories you would be consuming at that point wouldn’t be worth the health benefits.
If you’re serious about upping your daily intake of cocoa flavanols, you may want to consider supplements. As far as consuming cocoa flavanols directly from chocolate, the key is moderation. Start with 70% dark chocolate, eventually working your way towards darker chocolates or cocoa powder.An acceptable target for a balanced diet would be about 200mg of cocoa flavanols per day or a few times per week, which is half a bar of dark chocolate or about 1.5 tablespoons of cocoa powder.
Enjoy a half- or quarter-bar of dark chocolate with other flavanol-rich fruits and vegetables like apples, red grapes, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and kale as an afternoon snack. Or, try mixing ¾ tablespoon of cocoa powder into your morning coffee or oatmeal, or drink it with a glass of milk.
As you add chocolate into your diet, consider cutting back on baked goods and sugary treats to prevent weight gain and adverse health effects.