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April 21, 2010 • Healthy Eating & Nutrition, Healthy Living

Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate – Dark Chocolate – Healthy Dessert

  • Dark chocolate and its cousin cocoa are teeming with potent antioxidant plant chemicals called flavanols that emerging science reveals protect the health of the cardiovascular system.  These antioxidant flavanols have favorable effects on the inner most lining cells (endothelium) of our arteries and have been found in numerous studies to: lower blood pressure,  decrease the clotting tendency of the blood,  improve blood flow, improve insulin sensitivity (enhances the metabolism of glucose)
  • Milk chocolate, white chocolate, and instant cocoa have not been shown to provide these benefits.
  • To provide perspective, the antioxidant capacity of dark chocolate/cocoa rival red wine and green tea, two of the most powerful antioxidant foods known.
  • In theory, dark chocolate’s potent antioxidant activity may provide broad spectrum disease protection (cardiovascular disease, hypertension, some cancers, Alzheimer’s, etc.).  As oxidation is involved in the pathogenesis of these conditions, studies are needed to confirm these theoretical benefits.
  • The antioxidant flavanols are sensitive to heat, so processing/cooking can diminish their activity and potential benefits.  Studies have specifically shown that adding milk (milk chocolate) negates the beneficial vascular effects of flavanols.
  • As a nutrition expert, I consider a small (1/2 to 1 ounce) piece of dark chocolate an excellent dessert choice and recommend it as a truly healthy way to satisfy one’s sweet tooth (assuming the indulgence does not lead to a positive caloric/energy balance, i.e. excess calories).  Dark chocolate is 1 of the 5 foods I include in my diet daily (the others are red wine, green tea, nuts and berries).
  • The higher the percentage of cocoa content, the higher the flavanol concentration, the lower the sugar and fat content and the better it is for your health.  I recommend 60% at a minimum, 70% or greater is the best, and most palettes will find greater than 85% too bitter.
  • I have seen 60% dark chocolate or higher products that contain forbidden ingredients.  I would avoid chocolate products that contain partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) or added milk/milk solids.
  • We have not completed enough studies to clearly define the optimal dark chocolate/cocoa intake needed to provide cardiovascular benefits.  In the dark chocolate clinical trials I have reviewed, doses typically ranged from 2-3 ½ ounces (260-500 calories worth!).
  • At this juncture, my best advice is to regularly include a small amount (1/2 to 2 ounces) of the highest cocoa content one’s palette accepts.  In the context of health, it’s important that this indulgence replace a less beneficial food and does not tip the scales of energy balance towards caloric excess, i.e. any benefit would be wiped out if one gained weight as a result.

Related:  A Chocolate Sundae You Can Feel Good About!