Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
Chocolate: we see it everywhere—on dessert menus, in cute little heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s Day, at the check out aisle in the grocery store, as ingredients in facial masks, at the top of the list of foods to avoid, and sometimes, at the top of the list for foods claimed to be a super food. What do we believe? Much research is still being conducted to continue to discover the amazing effects chocolate has on the human body. The wide-range of benefits of chocolate put it among the healthiest foods you can find. Chocolate has been proven to have beauty benefits such as anti-aging properties, as well as being a mood booster, an aphrodisiac, and a tasty treat; and it is easy to add to your everyday diet. So what is it that makes chocolate a healthy addition to your diet and mental health?
What is chocolate?
“Chocolate is made using beans harvested from the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao. The beans are removed from their pod, fermented, dried, roasted and then ground to produce a cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. Cocoa liquor can be pressed to yield cocoa butter and cocoa cake which is ground up into cocoa powder. Cocoa liquor can also be combined with cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, (and milk, in milk chocolate) to make chocolate.” (1)
Cultures in North and South America have been harvesting cacao for thousands of years. Ancient cultures such as the Mayan and Aztec populations considered cacao a food of the gods and it remained part of their diet until the end of their civilization. The health benefits in cacao were believed to be the formula for strength and long life expectancy they saw in their leaders. In Inca civilization chocolate was contemplated as “the drink of gods.” Scientists have even found evidence that cacao was being consumed as early as 1600 BC. The most notable reference to cacao was by the Spanish conquerors who cited chocolate as the drink of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma who ruled over Mexico before the Spanish seized the country in 1521. Cacao was among the first cargoes sent back to Spain for the royals. This was the beginning of Europe, and later the rest of the world, obsessions with chocolate. (2)
Today’s access to the Internet makes it easy to find nutrition facts on any and every food. There are thousands of lists giving reasons why each food may be the best for you. However, chocolate is quite often considered to be a super food—it boasts high levels of antioxidants in addition to a healthy serving of soluble fiber and minerals. A 100 gram bar of dark chocolate containing 70-85% cocoa (3): has 11 grams of fiber, 67% of the recommended daily amount for Iron, 89% for Copper, 98% for Manganese, as well as significant amounts of zinc, selenium, potassium, phosphorus.
That being said, it is still important to understand that all the food we put into our body has an effect on how the whole body functions. First is the nervous system. As the main communicator for the entire body, normal functioning is dependent on the metabolic processes. Super foods such as cacao promote healthy bodily functions by providing high levels of nutrition. Furthermore, they aid in fighting neurological diseases that can be a result of malnutrition, or malabsorption. Degenerative diseases that affect the brain, the spine, and the spinal cord are all related to the central nervous system. These include neurodegenerative disorders include Alzheimer's Disease, which is the most common neurodegenerative disorder, one of the main culprits happens when the nervous system is overridden with bad cholesterol. (4)
What makes dark chocolate superior to other chocolate (specifically white chocolate and milk chocolate) is the manner in which dark chocolate is manufactured. In the production process dark chocolate it retains the flavanol epicatechin. Flavanols are found in plants and have positive effects on the body. Research has found that, “epicatechin has a beneficial effect of dark chocolate on blood pressure, lipids, and inflammation. Proposed mechanisms underlying these benefits include enhanced nitric oxide bioavailability and improved mitochondrial structure/function.” Flavanols have a positive effect on diseases related to cardiovascular function.
Chocolate May Lower Cholesterol and fight Cardiovascular Disease
High blood pressure is one of the leading culprits in causing heart attacks and strokes. High cholesterol clogs arteries and leads to hypertension. Studies on the flavanols found in cacao have been shown to lower cholesterol by releasing lipids that reduce blood pressure. One study conducted on 49 adults (32 women, 17 men) revealed that the daily consumption of a cocoa containing flavanols lead to reductions in LDL cholesterol. The flavanols also reduced systolic blood pressure, or simply put it may decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol oxidation
The University of Michigan Research team has reported, “Cocoa may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels because it consists mainly of stearic acid and oleic acid. Stearic acid is a saturated fat, but unlike most saturated fatty acids, it does not raise blood cholesterol levels. Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, does not raise cholesterol and may even reduce it.” (5) By increasing blood flow in arteries and the heart there are shown reductions in blood pressure also means less risk of blood clots and high blood pressure.
Chocolate Improves Your Mood
In a 2006 study in Food Research International, research showed that chocolate has been directly correlated with release of endorphins that also have an aphrodisiac effect. The reaction is associated with the Phenylethylamine, an active ingredient in many medications used to catalyze the levels of endorphins released in the brain. Chocolate affects the same cannabinoid receptors as Serotonin and N-acylethanolamines: the reaction in the brain induces a similar feeling to what many call a “runners high.” This may be the reason many people unconsciously reach for chocolate when they are feeling tired or sluggish. When you are feeling down, or like you need a pick me up, don’t hesitate to take a little nibble of that dark chocolate bar.
Chocolate may be great for your oral care. The bacteria that causes bleeding gums and bad breathe are sensitive to the tannins contained in chocolate polyhydroxyphenols. When you eat no sugar added chocolate you are helping to kill bacteria. (8)
Ever wonder why spas offer chocolate masks and facials? Cacao’s high antioxidant levels play an important role in ridding the body of free radicals, molecules whose molecular nature has been damaged by pollutants. Antioxidants are believed to help protect the body from free-radical damage as well as toxins that cause aging. In addition, free radicals are known to irritate inflammation in the body, which causes a delay in tissue repair and increases Arthritis.
Skin Problems, see you later…
Yes, those antioxidants are at it again! It’s no shock that many pregnant women turn to Cocoa butter when they are pregnant to help reduce stretch marks or other blemishes that occur during pregnancy. Cacao butter contains antioxidants and good fats that moisturize your body’s greatest defense against disease and other harmful things such as pollution, UV rays and bacteria. Cacao butter protects your skin by layering it with moisture, preventing wrinkles and working to reverse the damage the sun and pollution on the skin.
The antioxidants work to renew cells and prevent wrinkles while the high amount of vitamin c helps to keep skin looking younger, (and the immune system running) while the oil helps to strengthen the outer layers of the dermis and epidermis. “In a study on 2 groups of women who consumed either a high flavanol (326 mg/d) or low flavanol (27 mg/d) cocoa powder for 12 weeks, the ingestion of high flavanol cocoa led to increases in blood flow of cutaneous and subcutaneous tissues, and to increases in skin density and skin hydration. In addition, skin thickness was elevated and moisture was locked in. Cacao dietary flavanols aid endogenous photo-protection, skin blood circulation and hydration levels.” (9)
It’s Not Just An Aging Body
Just as our body experience the wear and tear of the everyday grind so does our mind. As we age our brain begins to slow, lose memory, and cognitive function is not as string as when we are younger. The anti-aging properties of the antioxidants found in dark chocolate that help our skin are known to aid different brain functions. Not only that, the flavonoids that help with cardiovascular disease may also catalyze brain neurons that are believed to influence neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.
Stomach Issues, no more!
Digestion is an important process that helps our body assimilate and absorb nutrients. One way to help digestion is by making sure there is enough fiber in your diet. The recommended amount of fiber for an adult is between 20-35 grams. Cacao contains an impressive amount, 11g of soluble fiber in every 100g of chocolate. Soluble fiber absorbs water, softens stool, and promotes the growth of good bacteria that aids digestion. Additionally, fiber makes you feel fuller longer and helps to clean intestines (which lessens the likeliness of developing various gastrointestinal disorders and stomach related infections).
In a 100g bar of dark chocolate you receive 58% of the recommended daily amount of Magnesium. Magnesium in dark chocolate has been shown to balance acidity in the stomach and as a result improves digestion. It works both ways: the alkaloids in cacao help to treat diarrhea, in addition to also helping with constipation. One study used 60 healthy volunteers, divided in two groups to observe the effect of 10 g of dark chocolate (>75% cocoa) for a month. (10) “The scientists tested the volunteers blood pressure, flow-mediated dilation, arterial stiffness index, aortic pulse wave velocity, and pulse wave analysis. The end results shows that the daily ingestion of 10 g dark chocolate over the course of a month will significantly improves vascular function in young and healthy individuals. So, the verdict is out—eating dark chocolate in moderation is a healthy addition to your diet.
May Reduce the Risk of Liver disease
“The powerful antioxidants in chocolate reduce the post-prandial portal hypertension associated with endothelial dysfunction.” However, those who have reported history with kidney Stones should be wary that Chocolate contains oxalates, which can lead to increased risk of kidney stones. As a result, those individuals prone to developing kidney stones should reduce their intake of oxalate from food - including chocolate - as a way to reduce urinary oxalate. (11)
So, why has chocolate gotten such a bad reputation? A majority of commercial chocolates are laden with fats, excessive sugar, and little cacao. They are more like chocolate flavors—so next time you go to buy a chocolate bar, check the label, see how much cacao is in your bar: a good indication that it is not what you are looking for is if there is no percentage. Milk chocolate doesn’t have the same affects because the lactose in milk binds to the antioxidants in chocolate and white chocolate contains no cocoa solids and therefore is not a good source of antioxidants. Shoot for above 60% dark chocolate: it is more bitter because natural cacao is not sweet. You are not going to get any benefits eating chocolate ice cream or any chocolate bar you find at the local movie theaters.
Ideas for Healthy Dark Chocolate Consumption
· Eat chocolate that has cocoa solids above 60 %. The darker it is in color and percentage, the more health benefits. It should look glossy. Don’t consume chocolate that has a grayish color, or white spots on the surface.
· Use moderation when consuming: while it has many health benefits, it still contains high amounts of fats and sugar. A small portion of high quality dark chocolate is recommended.
· Its best eaten in addition to fruit or other foods that will fill you.
· Remember that when making hot chocolate, don’t use milk because it will decrease or even negate the antioxidants in the chocolate.