Food

14 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate, According to Science

It lowers blood pressure, improves brain function and it's delicious.

Beautiful african woman holding and eating a huge dark chocolate bar
Photo Credit: iko/Shutterstock

Dark chocolate is not a guilty pleasure; it actually comes with many health benefits. Real dark chocolate—not processed and sweetened milk chocolate—is chock-full of incredible health benefits.

Some nutrients are destroyed in the process of making chocolate available for the general market. Make sure the chocolate you buy is within the healthy range. Check the label: chocolate with a 60 percent or higher cocoa content is packed full of nutrients and antioxidants. Often called bittersweet, it has minimal sugar. The best way to get all the nutrients from chocolate is simply to use unsweetened cocoa nibs. The bitter, crunchy, seed-like snack isn't the best-tasting treat, but its nutritional profile makes it worthwhile.

1. Dark chocolate can help prevent depression.

One of the components found in dark chocolate is theobromine. Theobromine is structurally quite similar to caffeine, its sister chemical. Theobromine, when consumed in larger amounts, can cause a dip in blood pressure, excitability and give energy. This energy can be followed by a crash, leading some critics to tout chocolate as a dangerous addictive substance.

Another chemical found in chocolate is anandamide. Anandamide is structurally similar to THC, but nowhere near as effective. Despite this, anandamide can still provide a mood- and energy-boost, without the addiction and cardiovascular damage that comes with other stimulating substances.

Yet another mood-boosting chemical in chocolate is phenethylamine, which is metabolized in your body into serotonin. Serotonin is one of the most important mood-regulating chemicals your body can produce. If you’re deficient in serotonin, supplementing with phenethylamine—even through chocolate—can help bring you back to baseline.

2. Dark chocolate can help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Small-scale studies have indicated for quite some time that regular intake of cocoa can have a positive effect in fighting cardiovascular disease. A more recent study on cocoa's cardiovascular benefits, done in 2006, proved this among a larger study group of 470 men, all tested while consuming different daily doses of cocoa. The conclusions were that cocoa does indeed lower the chances and significance of cardiovascular disease.

Such observational studies don't prove that chocolate is responsible for these benefits. However, the consistent and repeated positive results in studies done on cocoa indicate that chocolate does have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Chocolate has had such a profound effect on so many systems in the human body some authorities are unsure whether to call it a food or a drug.

3. Dark chocolate can aid against diabetes.

Chocolate has been shown to bolster endothelial function and insulin resistance. The endothelium is extremely important in maintaining arterial health, and insulin resistance is the most commonly checked statistic to determine whether future diseases, like diabetes, will develop. Cocoa and its flavonoids help to positively modulate these systems.

Obviously, if you're hoping to prevent diabetes, you're going to want to eat low-sugar, dark chocolate.

4. Dark chocolate can help prevent stroke.

A study recently done on Norfolk residents finds that chocolate has a huge impact on the likelihood of having a stroke.

The study compared people who frequently consumed chocolate with those who entirely abstained. It was done on a huge scale, involving 20,951 adults. They measured chocolate intake at the start of the study and tracked the people for decades, following their cardiovascular statistics.

The problem with studies done like this is that the results don't conclusively link chocolate and lower incidence of stroke. Perhaps heavy chocolate consumers share similar habits that also reduce stroke. This study also found links between those who ate more chocolate and just having healthier habits in general than the other study group.

5. Dark chocolate can improve LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.

Artherogenesis, caused by low-quality lipids being oxidized, is a degenerative condition of the arteries. Chocolate has been shown to prevent the oxidization of LDL cholesterol, which is one of the greatest contributors to artherogenesis.

So, when LDL cholesterol is oxidized, the LDL itself becomes reactive. This means it can damage your organs and your arteries and eventually cause cancer. It's also effective at increasing the total amount of HDL cholesterol, the good kind.

The solution to reactive LDL? Antioxidants! Chocolate has no dearth of antioxidants. Plenty of these antioxidants are absorbed easily by the blood and can battle free radicals before they do any damage.

6. Dark chocolate can lower your blood pressure.

Another benefit of chocolate's amazing medicinal profile—it can lower your blood pressure. Chocolate can be a cheaper and more enjoyable way of lowering blood pressure than medical options.

A recent study done at Harvard looked at 24 studies done on chocolate in the past. Over 1,000 people were involved in these studies which collectively concluded that dark chocolate—between 50 and 70 percent cocoa—lowered the blood pressure of all participants.

The benefits were greater in those who already suffered from hypertension. This suggests that the flavonols responsible are more effective when blood pressure is high.

While fruit, vegetables and tea are known sources of antioxidants, research shows that the cocoa bean is more potent, with one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients in the world. 

7. Dark chocolate can help control your cough. 

One of the chemicals in cocoa, theobromine, is known to antagonize the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a part of your brain, and its activation can trigger coughing fits. Scientists are looking into creating medication for coughs that uses theobromine.

A study on chocolate's effects as a cough-suppressant found it to be more effective than common cold medicines, even ones containing codeine, a weak narcotic.

They tested this by giving subjects different cough medicines. One group received common cough medicine with codeine; the second group received a solution of theobromine and the third group was placebo. They were exposed to capsaicin (the chemical responsible for making chili peppers spicy.) Their intention was to see how much capsaicin was required to induce five coughs. Having one's lungs exposed to capsaicin will usually cause even the most hardened chili-head to break into a coughing fit.

The group with theobromine required about a third more capsaicin to cough five times. There was no difference between codeine and the placebo group.

8. Dark chocolate can help in pregnancy.

Recent studies have shown that chocolate improves fetal growth. Some mothers may be at risk for preeclampsia, when the blood supply to the fetus is cut off or restricted. This occurs due to high blood pressure, which is natural during pregnancy. 

A study shows that regular chocolate consumption can reduce the risk of preeclampsia by lowering blood pressure.

It is undetermined which compounds in chocolate are responsible for this effect. The study's two groups consumed high- and low-flavonol chocolate. Both saw significant improvements in blood flow to the fetus. This suggests that chocolate's benefits may extend beyond its flavonol content.

9. Dark chocolate can improve brain function.

Only lately has chocolate been studied for its benefits to human cognition.

This study delves into the cognitive benefits of chocolate consumption. High intake of high-quality chocolate enabled improvements of cognitive processing, visual-spatial awareness, abstract reasoning, scanning, working memory, and improved Global Composite scores.

An ongoing 40-year study on the effects of chocolate on cognitive function was recently finished. The study used data from the beginning of the study and compared it through cross-sectional study. This might not mean that chocolate makes people smarter—perhaps smart people happen to eat chocolate. Regardless, the study also concluded that all the types of intelligence measured previously were increased by chocolate consumption—along with spoken word recall. 

A study done by British psychologists shows that the flavonols in chocolate specifically help people with their mental math. During the study, people were tested counting backward on a randomly generated number test before and after drinking a cup of hot cocoa. This means gorging on chocolate before your exam could be a good idea.

10. Dark chocolate is a huge source of antioxidants.

Dark chocolate contains very high amounts of a number of potent antioxidants. A study linked calculated the Relative Antioxidant Capacity Index (RACI) by isolating free radicals and antioxidants extracted from chocolate. Free radicals are the prerequisite for cancer, and antioxidants can help destroy free radicals before they spread.

The two opposing extracts were essentially left in vivo (outside of the human body) to battle each other. The resulting statistics show that chocolate's antioxidants (at least, in vivo) are extremely effective at reducing free radicals. While they may behave differently in the body, relevant studies also show that chocolate is effective at battling free radicals in vitro.

Chocolate has a huge number of biologically active compounds with antioxidant activity. It's filled with polyphenols, flavonols, and catechins and even theobromine (the compound touted to have antidepressant effects) acts as an antioxidant.

11. Dark chocolate can protect your skin from the sun.

Dark chocolate has been known to prevent damage from ultraviolet rays, the light emitted by the sun.

The most effective way to reap this effect would be to eat straight cocoa beans. These are often available at health food stores.

If you can't use raw cocoa, high-quality dark chocolate will still suffice. The flavonols in 85% dark chocolate are still present enough to have an effect.

One study measured the minimal erythema dose, a measure that shows how much exposure will begin to negatively affect skin. A high MED is good because it means you need to be exposed to more UV light to take damage.

MED rose dramatically for the study group consuming cocoa rich in flavonols for a few weeks. The group that didn't consume any, or consumed chocolate lower in flavonols, showed no change.

12. Dark chocolate is very nutritious.

Besides all those antioxidants, dark chocolate is jam-packed full of dietary minerals and vitamins. In half a cup of pure cocoa (this is quite a bit, mind you), you'll get the following nutrients:

  • Riboflavin, 6% of your daily value
  • Niacin, 4% of your daily value
  • Calcium, 5% of your daily value
  • Iron, 33% of your daily value
  • Magnesium, 53% of your daily value
  • Phosphorous, 30% of your daily value
  • Zinc, 40% of your daily value
  • Copper, 80% of your daily value
  • Manganese, 83% of your daily value
  • Omega-6 fatty acids—378mg
  • Caffeine, 99 mg
  • Theobromine, 880 mg
13. Dark chocolate can promote red blood cell distribution.

This study showed that dark chocolate is shown to aid in the distribution of red blood cells. Evidence over the last couple of decades has shown that regular consumption of dark chocolate can improve the red blood cell distribution width. RDW is a reliable way to measure or predict cardiovascular disease.

Using RDW as a measure, regular intake of chocolate high in flavonols and polyphenols raises RDW significantly enough to reduce the risk of a large number of cardiovascular diseases. Part of the reason chocolate helps improve RDW is because of its high iron content. 

14. Dark chocolate boosts your immune system.

Dark chocolate's potent antioxidant content—along with some of the other mechanisms of nutrients—make it a treat for your immune system. Cocoa can modulate the inflammatory response of your immune system. Inflammation is tissue's response to pathogens, chemicals, wounding, or infections. Flavonoids are generally associated with anti-inflammatory properties, and chocolate is filled with them.

Cocoa can have a beneficial effect on certain cells that produce antibodies. Antibodies help your body battle bacteria and disease, so regular consumption of chocolate might even save you from getting malaria someday.

Cocoa also has a positive effect on the lymphoid tissues. Lymphoid organs help to coordinate the immune response in humans. Cocoa helps the lymphoid organs produce cells more effectively, leading to a better defense against disease.

Three Delicious Dark Chocolate Recipes 

With its strong, almost nutty flavor, dark chocolate adds a splash of versatility to the kitchen. It can make cake richer, snacks more complex and add depth to just about anything. Here are a few of my favorite dark chocolate recipes for you to indulge in.

1. Chocolate Orange Fondue

This delicious sauce can cover any fruit and turn it into a delectable dessert. It can also be used for dipping cookies and cake, for an extra depth of flavor. Chocolate and orange have been mixed together for years; something about the tart sweetness of an orange mixed with the deep, rich flavor of chocolate is irresistible.

You'll need:

  • 1 1/4 cups of thick cream
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon orange liqueur

With a short prep time and cook time, this will be ready in only 15 minutes!

Mix the cream and orange juice together in a pan. Heat until the edges begin to bubble. Once it’s bubbling, take it away from the heat. Mix in the chocolate, zest, and orange liqueur with a whisk. Voila! Now, just keep it on the lowest heat setting to keep it warm, or take it off the element and let sit.

You could try this with fresh strawberry or squeezed blueberry juice, or add cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne or peanut butter to change up the flavors.

2. Black Bean Chili with Chocolate and Coconut

This great recipe is a modified version of another recipe

You will need:

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 pound dried black beans, rinsed
  • 1 fresh diced red chili
  • 1/4 cup coconut flakes
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder

A short prep time meets a long cooking time, so this meal might not be one you can whip up for a casual dinner on short notice.

Heat oil over medium heat. Mince the garlic finely and saute for about five minutes, stirring or shaking constantly. Add in the garam masala and cumin, and cook for another few minutes until you can smell the spices rising from the pot. Add the water, sliced red chili, coconut flakes and cocoa powder. Bring to a boil, and reduce to medium low and put a lid on, leaving it slightly open. Let simmer for two hours, or until the beans are almost cooked.

After it's simmered, you can season with salt and pepper, or any other ingredients you think could complement the taste. I've used honey before, with great results. Return the concoction to the heat again for another half hour or until the beans are fully cooked.

If you don't like the texture, feel free to throw it in a food processor for a few minutes. In addition, if you have a slow cooker, you can just mix all this in the cooker and put it on low for 6-8 hours.

3. Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Cups

The original recipe uses sea salt, but I find these taste much better without it. Dark chocolate and almond butter cover the flavor palate so perfectly that for me, the salt adds an unnecessary flavor that detracts from the overall experience.

Commercialized nut butter cups, such as Reese's peanut butter cups, are notorious for being unhealthy. This recipe seeks to make a similarly delicious treat using natural ingredients.

You'll need:

  • 7-8 ounces of dark chocolate or cocoa/baking chocolate, sweetened to taste with maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup of almond butter
  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • 2 tablespoons of coconut flour
  • 2 and 1/2 teaspoons of arrowroot powder

The method:

Using mini-muffin cups, line a muffin tin. Put together in a bowl the butter, honey, coconut flour and arrowroot powder. Stir until well-mixed.

Break the chocolate into pieces. Proceed to melt it in a double-boiler. Alternatively, you can microwave it in short, 10-second blasts, making sure to stir between each one.

Drizzle a teaspoon of the melted chocolate into the muffin cups. Rotate the cups slowly, lining the sides with melted chocolate. Leave a little bit of space at the top.

Once they're all filled up, spoon in 2 teaspoons of your almond butter mixture in each cup. Depending on the type of honey used, they might be thick enough for you to roll into balls. If so, you can do this and simply press them down into the muffin cups with the chocolate.

Drizzle again with chocolate until the muffin cups are filled completely. If you choose to use sea salt, sprinkle smoked sea salt over each individual chocolate.

Refrigerate until cold and hard, then dive in!

Jacky Miller is a registered dietician based in New Zealand. She writes for blogs including MindBodyGreen, Jen Reviews, Elite Daily and the Huffington Post.

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