Broccoli and spinach may be good for you, but how many times have you had a craving for spinach? Instead you dream of biting into a chocolate bar. Well, there’s good news. It’s okay to indulge a little as long as you make it dark chocolate. The evidence of dark chocolate’s health benefits are mounting. We’re not talking about the average chocolate bar you find in line at the supermarket. Most of these chocolate bars are milk chocolate with a high sugar content, and milk chocolate doesn’t have the same health benefits as the darker stuff. Even worse, many have lots of gooey marshmallow or caramel – not exactly health food.
How Milk Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Differ
All chocolate comes from the cacao bean. To make chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa solids and chocolate liquor are extracted from the cocoa bean. To make milk chocolate, chocolate makers add milk whereas dark chocolate is made of cocoa butter and cocoa liqueur with added sugar. It has a higher percentage of cocoa derivatives than milk chocolate since it hasn’t been diluted with milk. Dark chocolate is more “pure” form of chocolate.
What Makes Dark Chocolate a Healthy Indulgence?
Dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants called flavonoids. The flavonoids in dark chocolate cause your blood vessels to produce a chemical called nitric oxide that helps to open them up, including the coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart. This increases blood flow to your heart, lowers blood pressure, and, possibly, reduces your risk for heart disease and stroke. Another way it may reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack is by keeping platelets from sticking together to form a clot.
When you bite into a piece of chocolate, do you feel a little happier? There’s science behind that. Research shows that eating as little as an ounce-and-a-half of dark chocolate daily lowers levels of stress hormones. Chocolate also boosts the release of natural brain chemicals called endorphins that boost mood. Endorphins are the same chemicals that cause “runner’s high,” that good feeling runners get when they run long distances. Chocolate also boosts serotonin levels in your brain, which can give you a greater sense of well-being.
Uh-Oh! Chocolate is High in Calories
Dark chocolate isn’t a low-calorie food. That’s why it’s important to eat it in moderation. Interestingly, one study showed that people who snacked on chocolate daily had lower body masses than those who didn’t. Why might that be? There’s some evidence that chocolate helps to reduce food cravings and increase satiety so you eat less when you nibble on dark chocolate in moderation.
How to Get the Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Not all dark chocolate is equally healthy. Some dark chocolate is processed in such a way that it destroys the healthful flavonoids that make it such a worthwhile indulgence. Unfortunately, you don’t always know how processed the dark chocolate you’re eating is. One way to avoid this issue is to buy raw chocolate. You can find this in many natural foods stores in the form of “nibs” you can add to oatmeal or sprinkle on top of fruit. You can also buy raw cocoa powder and use it to make hot cocoa.
One word of warning. Don’t use dairy milk to make hot cocoa or other chocolate drinks. Dairy milk decreases the absorption of the flavonoids in dark chocolate. Use a non-dairy milk like soy milk, almond milk or coconut milk instead.
If you’d prefer to get your dark chocolate from a bar, look for one that has a cacao content of 70% or greater and has as little added sugar as possible. The downside is the higher the cacao content, the more bitter the chocolate tastes. What we do at home is melt dark chocolate with 99% cacao in the microwave, stir in a little Stevia to sweeten it and dip strawberries into it before allowing it to harden. You can also stir nuts into it, scoop it out onto a sheet of waxed paper and let it harden and enjoy dark-chocolate covered nut clusters. Adding Stevia reduces the bitterness and makes it taste more like milk chocolate.
To get the benefits of dark chocolate, you only need about an ounce a day, which is around 140 calories. Be sure to factor that into your calorie intake for the day.
The Bottom Line?
Dark chocolate is one of the healthiest ways to indulge. Enjoy it in moderation and think of all the good things you’re doing for your heart and blood vessels.
Journal of Proteome Research. “Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects” F.P. Martin et al.; Dec. 3, 2009.
ABC News. “Snacking on Chocolate Linked to Low BMI”