Popular films portray chocolate as an aphrodisiac, as in “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Chocolat.” In those novels turned movies, the main characters seduce or are seduced by hot chocolate and a chocolatier’s wares. While there is a scientific basis for the feeling of well-being quality cocoa and dark chocolate produces, recently studies also show that dark chocolate has an array of other health benefits when eaten in moderation.
The health benefits of chocolate have been touted since the days of Montezuma, the Aztec chief, who drank up to 50 cups of a cocoa concoction daily to give himself special powers. Considered the “food of the gods,” the mostly bitter drink derived from fermented cacao seeds and flavored with cinnamon and herbs, was called “Xocoatl.” Later, Spanish monks who settled in the New World derived the word “chocolate” from the Aztec word, and made it the drink more palatable by adding sugar.
In the many years since chocolate became a global taste sensation, scientific studies begun in the mid-’90s by the chocolate company MARS found that the cocoa butter in dark chocolate contains heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fatty acid, or MUFA, which is similar to olive oil. The MARS Center for Cocoa Health Science, formally established in 2012, as done extensive studies on how MUFA allows unsaturated fats easily glide through the bloodstream and help unclog and protect arteries from building up. Chocolate must contain at least 70% cocoa content to have this benefit—the definition of dark chocolate.
Dark Chocolate Is Heart Healthy
In recent years, a deluge of independently verified studies by international researchers have confirmed the MARS studies, such as a report in the British Medical Journal that found that eating dark chocolate could reduce the risk of developing heart disease by one-third. Also, the Journal of Nutrition found that plant sterols and cocoa flavanols are proven to reduce bad cholesterol and high blood pressure. Other reported benefits include:
In a study of 44,489 people, Canadian researchers found that those who consumed dark chocolate regularly were 22% less likely to have a stroke than those who did not. Of those who had a stroke and consumed chocolate, they were 46% less likely to die as a result.
Other studies have found that the MUFAs in dark chocolate help reduce appetite. This helps combat cortisol, a hormone that causes stress eating and induces cravings for sugar and fat.
Positively affects Insulin
Dark chocolate helps control insulin levels and relax blood vessels, lowering blood pressure.
There’s a reason why women, especially, may crave chocolate. One dark chocolate square naturally provides important minerals, including magnesium, copper, calcium and iron. Women tend to need more calcium and iron than men in their diets.
Reduces Inflammation and Helps Peripheral Artery Disease Patients
Flavanols, a kind of antioxidant in dark chocolate, boosts good HDL cholesterol and reduces bad LDL levels, reducing inflammation. Flavanols are plant pigments found in dark green vegetables, berries, green tea, nuts, spices, red wine and chocolate. Antioxidants help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals. It’s the anti-inflammatory qualities that offer protection against cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, a study by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that Peripheral Artery Disease patients who consumed dark chocolate were able to walk farther, due to its artery opening qualities.
Mental Health Benefits
The mental health benefits of dark chocolate are four-fold.
- Dark chocolate boosts brain function through its flavanols. Anything that opens up arteries and blood blow is of benefit to the brain, too.
- It contains a mild stimulant from the alkaloid Theobromine, which is similar to caffeine, but has different effects. Theobromine, the “love chemical,” is a mood enhancer.
- Eating an entire bar of chocolate is only equal to the stimulating effects of one cup of coffee. A high-sugar content may contribute to the effect, but most dark chocolate is lower in sugar than milk chocolate and is much higher in cacao—70% or more, providing greater health benefits. The other 30% is sugar.
- Harvard Medical School researchers have found that two cups of hot chocolate a day may help keep the brain healthy and prevent mental decline in older people. Also, a study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January 2015 found that cognitive function has been improved by a diet high in cocoa flavanols.
These benefits are not available in most milk chocolate, however. All chocolate starts out as dark chocolate, but when dairy is added it becomes milk chocolate. Dairy products, unfortunately, negate many health benefits of dark chocolate by reducing cocoa content in favor of adding unhealthy fats and a load of sugar.
Mass produced milk chocolate is derived from Belgian bulk chocolate, which is sold to many American chocolate makers. There are lots of problems with this chocolate from an ethical standpoint—often the cacao is picked and processed through child labor in West Africa. In addition, the cacao farmers are not paid a fair price for the product they sell. If they were, it would be called Fair Trade chocolate. Once this chocolate is sold in bulk, heavy processing and additives, flavorings, sometimes caffeine and a majority of sugar make it far less desirable. The first and main ingredient listed on most milk chocolate packages is usually sugar.
The healthiest chocolate is organic, Fair Trade dark chocolate. It comes from Central and South America, but can also originate from such far-flung locales as Tanzania, Madagascar, Viet Nam and other tropical locations where cacao seeds grow.
Buying quality Fair Trade dark chocolate not only ensures that it’s quality chocolate, but also can make buyers feel good about eating something that benefits many otherwise struggling farmers around the world—a psychological benefit that doesn’t need a scientific study to prove. Many of these chocolate bars can be found in high-end grocery stores and health food stores.