dark_chocolate_bar_1They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Does that apply to chocolate? Nope. Looks like dark chocholate really is a win-win situation, if you consume in moderation and choose your chocolate wisely.

Chocolate makes us happy in so many ways, but it also does so much more. It can help calm us down, help us bond with people.

For centuries, people have been attributing a vast array of health benefits to eating chocolate, from curing infertility and fatigue to fever and dental problems. But so far, the links to lower blood pressure and heart health have been the strongest.

Science show that an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age. Researchers reported that certain bacteria in the stomach gobble the chocolate and ferment it into anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for the heart.

In a small study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.

Besides improvements on the memory test — a pattern recognition test involving the kind of skill used in remembering where you parked the car or recalling the face of someone you just met — researchers found increased function in an area of the brain’s hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, which has been linked to this type of memory.

We’ve noted before the growing evidence that a daily dose of the bitter bean may help reduce blood pressure. There also seems to be a link between a regular chocolate habit and lower body weight.

Main_health_effects_of_chocolate

Now scientists are offering an explanation for just why cocoa powder may be good for the heart and waistline. The magic may reside in our microbes.

The friendly bacteria in our guts can gobble up cocoa powder and turn it into compounds known to help the heart, food scientists from Louisiana State University

The critters also convert the cocoa powder into molecules that reduce inflammation and help tell us when we’re full.

Cocoa powder is packed with potent antioxidants, called polyphenols. These healthful molecules are also found in dark berries and black tea. And they’re known to help the heart and possibly prevent cancer.

“The effect that dark chocolate has on our bodies is encouraging not only because it allows us to indulge with less guilt, but also because it could lead the way to therapies that do the same thing as dark chocolate but with better and more consistent results,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Until the ‘dark chocolate drug’ is developed, however, we’ll just have to make do with what nature has given us!”

Studies show that the antioxidants found in cocoa beans—known as flavonols—help lower blood pressure and keep arteries clear; they may also help reduce the risk of diabetes. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can go crazy in the candy aisle.

Nutritional Highlights:

  • Unlike the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products, the saturated fats found in chocolate do not elevate cholesterol levels.
  • Chocolate – specifically dark chocolate – contains up to four times the antioxidants found in tea.
  • A 1.5 ounce piece of chocolate contains nearly the same amount of  phenols as a 5 oz. glass of red wine, with an antioxidant effect equal to or greater than that of the wine.

What to look for on the label

In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao content. However, cacao is fairly bitter, and the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is. The flavanols are what make the chocolate bitter, so manufacturers often remove them. But, it’s the flavanols that are responsible for many of chocolate’s health benefits. To counteract the bitterness, most chocolate is sweetened, so it’s a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability. So, read your labels carefully. In addition to high cacao content, you also want to evaluate each product for the following:

  • Type of sweetener: Not only should you choose chocolate with low sugar content, but you should also look at what form of sugar it contains. Honey is sometimes used to sweeten raw chocolate products, which is a good choice (in moderation). If you can find chocolate sweetened with Stevia or Luo Han, that would be preferable to cane sugar,fructose, or high fructose corn syrup.Strictly avoid any product containing artificial sweeteners.
  • Fructose will reverse some of the positive benefits of chocolate, as it breaks down into a variety of harmful waste products, one of which is uric acid. Uric acid drives up your blood pressure by inhibiting the production of nitric oxide in your blood vessels, which helps your vessels maintain their elasticity. So, excess fructose can lead to elevated blood pressure, as a result of nitric oxide suppression. It also promotes insulin resistance, which is at the heart of virtually all chronic disease.
  • Genetically engineered cocoa beans: Select chocolate products that are certified organic so that you be sure they aren’t genetically engineered (GE). Most chocolate today (even dark chocolate) is GE, unfortunately.16Also opt for fair-trade products.
  • Type of fat: Fat in chocolate, as long as it’s the right kind, is a good thing. It slows down the absorption of sugar, lessening the insulin spike. Ideally, the type of fat in your chocolate bar should be what is contained in the natural plant—cocoa butter. The primary fatty acid in cocoa butter is stearic acid, which is the only saturated fat that favorably affects HDL, without adversely affecting LDL.Coconut oil would be the next best fat in chocolate. Make sure you avoid soybean oil (and any other form of soy), and other vegetable oils and trans fats.

How to choose the healthy Chocolate

In order to provide the most healthful choices of chocolate products, avoid chocolate candies and treats made with hydrogenated fats or refined flour, neither of which promotes health. For the biggest flavonoid bang for your caloric buck, choose high-quality semisweet, dark chocolate with the highest cocoa content that suites your palate. Also, pass on products labeled “artificial chocolate” or “chocolate-flavored”. These imitations are not even close to the real thing in flavor, texture or health benefits.

You must not rush to buy Milky Way or Snickers bars. To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin, 138 milligrams, would take eating at least 300 grams of dark chocolate a day — about seven average-sized bars. Or possibly about 100 grams of baking chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder, but concentrations vary widely depending on the processing. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.
Not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate gets all the good publicity because it has relatively lower added sugar and fats than milk chocolate. The benefits come from cocoa, thus  chocolates with the highest proportion of cocoa are better. Even when it comes to pure cocoa powder, which can be used for a hot beverage or added as a topping, no one knows the ideal amount. Even the darkest of the dark chocolates must be consumed in moderation to avoid weight gain.

The best chocolate clearly is dark chocolate, and the best dark chocolate is made from at least 70 percent of cacao. As we already stated to make it more enjoyable, most dark chocolate will have the cacao mixed with more traditional sweets like butter and sugar, but there are plenty of vegan options as well. Get the best benefits from dark chocolate that’s made with at least 70 percent cacao. If that ingredient doesn’t work for you no matter what the percentage, it’s okay to look for dark chocolate that uses cocoa instead. Cocoa is a close (roasted) relative of cacao.

A few simple rules will help you  make to the smartest choice when it comes to buying chocolate

Go dark
Dark, less processed chocolate contains more disease-fighting flavonols than lighter, more processed chocolate. There’s no exact percentage to shoot for, but in general the higher the percentage of cocoa (also sometimes called cacao), the higher the antioxidant level—and the lower the calorie count because there’s less added sugar and milk.

Skip white chocolate—it doesn’t contain any flavonols.
Take out the sugar
Most candy and chocolate will have sugar pretty high on the ingredients list. That’s OK if you’re going to enjoy it as an occasional treat, but it’s possible to choose a more nutritious indulgence.
Look for bonus nutrients
Although chocolate’s flavonols get most of the attention, the products spotlighted on the next page are also rich in either iron or (surprise!) fiber. In fact, even without the addition of fruit or nuts, some plain bars contain 5g or more of filling fiber per serving, or about a fifth of your daily needs.
Practice portion control
No matter how healthy the chocolate you choose, you still have to watch your portions to keep calories in check. You need only a small amount to reap the antioxidant benefits, so stick to 1 to 1.5 oz. a day (roughly 150 to 250 calories). Trying to lose weight? Cap your chocolate fix at 1 oz.

Health Benefits:

At the center of chocolate’s health benefits are flavonoids. These plant pigments are responsible for many of the health benefits of many fruits and medicinal plants, but chocolate may be a much more sensually pleasing vehicle. In addition, there is evidence that not only is chocolate rich in flavonoids, but that factors in chocolate somehow dramatically increase absorption of these compounds. The key flavonoids are proanthocyanidins (also called procyanidins) similar to those found in grape seed extract, apples, berries, and pine bark extract. Chocolate is very well endowed with these compounds. In fact, procyanidins constitute from 12 percent to as much as 48 percent of the dry weight of the cocoa bean. Cocoa powder can contain as much as 10 percent flavonoids on a dry-weight basis.

One of the key areas of research into the benefits of chocolate consumption is its effect on cardiovascular disease.

Take for example, the following 10 benefits to heart:

  • In a 9-year study conducted by the Swedes, it was found that people who consumed chocolate just 1 to 3 times per month had a 26% lower risk of developing heart failure. If you normally give your sweetheart chocolate, consider making it dark chocolate to provide an extra bit of love to the heart muscle.
  • Chocolate increases communication between opiate receptors in the brain as well as supports the production of dopamine, two hormones that increase happiness and contribute to feelings of elation.
  • A meta-analysis published recently in Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that those who consume chocolate experience a reduction in blood pressure.
  • Real chocolate, or cocoa, is associated with decreased low-density lipoprotein levels and increased high-density lipoprotein levels. These are important for carrying cholesterol to the liver.
  • Eating chocolate releases the same hormones that our bodies make when we are in love: Phenylethylamine (PEAs).
  • Chocolate has more than 300 identifiable chemical compounds that can provide amazing health benefits for the whole body.
  • Raw cacao contains N-acylethanolamines that are believed to temporarily increase the levels of anandamide in the brain and enzyme inhibitors that slow its breakdown. This means we feel more relaxed when we eat chocolate.
  • Cacao can be enjoyed in raw form as a powder, as cacao nibs, or as a dark chocolate bar minus the refined sugar and unhealthy fats. You can mix a little cacao with honey and cinnamon over low heat on the stove for a delicious sweet treat, with the combined health benefits of all three foods for a vitamin-packed dessert.
  • Eating chocolate increases our endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers.
  • Raw cacao consumption can help with weight loss as it eradicates sweet cravings. The abundance of antioxidants can also help keep our metabolism running smoothly. An article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry says you can enjoy cacao several times a week to boost weight loss.

Close-up of chocolate on a white background

Still not convinced you can get away with eating chocolate? Take a look at these six health benefits that you gain with every blissful bite:

  1. Diabetes Detractor. It’s pretty common knowledge that the more sugar you eat, the more you put yourself at risk for diabetes. So it might seem counter-intuitive to increase your chocolate intake in order to avoid diabetes. However, when it’s dark chocolate you’re eating, avoiding diabetes gets a whole lot easier. Those flavonols are working overtime again and helping your body manage and process insulin. Nitric oxide is responsible for controlling your insulin sensitivity, and the flavonols in dark chocolate increase the body’s production of nitric oxide. If diabetes runs in your family, or you’ve had problems regulating insulin in the past, see what kind of impact a bit of dark chocolate has on your blood levels.
  2. Weight Loss Wonders. Yes, even modest amounts of dark chocolate contain a relatively high calorie count. If you’re trying to lose weight, you know that every calorie counts. What you need to remember is that not every calorie is created equal. For example, the calories in dark chocolate will leave you feeling fuller than the calories you’ll find in a cookie or an ice cream cone. The density of dark chocolate’s ingredients goes to work on your metabolism and your cravings. You’ll feel more satisfied after eating a small piece of dark chocolate, and you’ll find your cravings for additional sugars and fats might disappear. There is no better news for a dieter; allow yourself a small square of dark chocolate once or twice a day, and the scale won’t punish you.
  3. Smarty Pants. If you want to get into MENSA but you’re not such a good test taker, maybe eat a little bit more dark chocolate. It will make you smarter. Scientific evidence has shown that when you consume dark chocolate, the flavonols encourage blood flow to the brain, and the effects last for at least two or three hours. The extra boost can’t hurt, especially if you’re about to take a big test or deliver a major presentation. Dark chocolate will also help you hang onto your intelligence for a little longer. Oxford University researchers found that people over 70 who consumed foods rich in flavonols, such as dark chocolate, had a greater cognitive ability than those who did not consume such foods.
  4. Stress Stopper. Do you binge on sweets after a break-up or a bad day at work? Emotional eating is not uncommon, and when people are extremely high or devastatingly low, they tend to reach for something sugary and sweet. If you absolutely have to do that, make sure it’s dark chocolate you’re reaching for in your time of need. It will make you feel better and essentially talk you down off whatever emotional ledge of anxiety you happen to be teetering on. Stress kicks off extra activity in your cortisol level, which pretty much sets off alarm sirens all over your body, screwing up your mental and physical health. Regular consumption of dark chocolate can reduce your stress hormones and keep your metabolic meter in check. There’s no need to burn through an entire bag of gummy bears; you’re better off with a sampling of dark chocolate. Let yourself splurge and you’ll start feeling better right away.
  5. Digestive Drama. A tasty morsel of dark chocolate at the end of a meal will cleanse your palate and offer just the right amount of sweetness. It can also keep your digestion in check. It turns out dark chocolate is effective in stopping diarrhea. Those flavonols we keep talking about know how to treat the small intestine. The cocoa binds into a protein, which manages any excessive fluid secretion that might be happening. There is also fiber to be found in the cacao that makes up dark chocolate, which helps to produce your body’s digestive enzymes. If you grew up in South America in the 16thor 17th century, this news will come as no surprise to you. Those cultures used dark chocolate to treat intestinal and digestive ailments regularly.
  6. Happy Pregnancies. Okay, if you’re not willing to eat chocolate for your own health reasons, think about your kids. Scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland conducted a study which showed that expectant mothers who ate regular amounts of chocolate during their pregnancies were less stressed and more prepared for the demands of motherhood than the women who (sadly) abstained from chocolate. If you’re ever been pregnant, you know that food cravings are part of the job. If you crave something sweet and chocolatey, send your partner out for a dark chocolate bar and relax with the knowledge that your pregnancy depends upon this delicious indulgence. Another item worth noting is that the same Finnish study also pointed out that the babies of the chocolate-eating mothers were found to smile more and to generally be happier. Well, of course!

The key to enjoying all the health benefits dark chocolate has to offer is to eat it in moderation. Remember to look for that 70 percent cacao or cocoa and don’t eat it by the pound. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you stick to about three ounces or 85 grams of dark chocolate per day. All of the research that has been conducted to establish the health benefits contained in dark chocolate used a similar amount. While the antioxidants and flavonols in dark chocolate can help you reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, and diabetes, consuming too much will not bring you the desired effects.

It doesn’t hurt to get creative and combine the dark chocolate you want to eat with other healthy superfoods. For example, drizzle your blueberries and dip your strawberries in dark chocolate to get a maximum hit of antioxidants. Look for a satisfying and delicious snack like almonds, raisins, or walnuts covered in dark chocolate. Most commercial dark chocolate is a bit more expensive than other types of chocolate, thanks to the ingredients being a bit harder to mass produce. It’s worth the extra money you pay, however, to enjoy a chocolate treat that not only tastes good but helps your heart, your brain, your body, and your stress levels.

Most of the research that has been done on dark chocolate and its health effects has focused on the short term. The impact this type of chocolate has on your health in the long term is still being studied, and the scientific, health, and medical communities will surely pay attention to whatever news breaks about the benefits that dark chocolate might have over the course of a person’s entire life.