Chocolate has been a tradition of love dating back to ancient times and cultures. One of the first links between chocolate and romance was established by the Mayans, who created a ritual beverage made from cacao mixed with water, black pepper, vanilla and spices. Mayan brides and grooms shared the mixture during marriage ceremonies, and it is said to be associated with their god of fertility.
You might be surprised to learn that I owned a chocolate company for ten years. The everyday tasting of dark chocolate, going home with the aroma of chocolate in my hair, stains of chocolate on my clothes, and smears of chocolate all over my face still didn’t obliterate my love for chocolate. Chocolate is like gold. Do you agree? If so, we should be friends!
Although it’s always “sweet” to receive a delicious box of chocolates from the object of your affection, the nutritionist in me is drawn to the many health benefits of this sensual treat. Here are ten reasons why you should consider indulging in a bit of dark chocolate daily … or, perhaps, it’s confirmation to continue indulging in this treasured food, if it happens to already be a part of your daily ritual.
Studies have shown that subjects who ate about 1.25 ounces of dark chocolate a day had lower LDL levels compared to those who did not. The researchers attribute this to dark chocolate’s potent antioxidant content. (Have I mentioned that dark chocolate has hundreds of phytonutrients, nutrients specific to plants, many acting as antioxidants?)
Craving dark chocolate during certain times of the month? There may be a reason. Dark chocolate is abundant in magnesium, a mineral that may help alleviate PMS symptoms, including cramps, water retention, fatigue, depression and irritability. Instead of reaching for sugary sweet stuff, reach for some dark chocolate.
Flavonoids, natural phytonutrients found in cacao that act like antioxidants, help protect plants from environmental toxins and repair damage. When we consume flavonoid-rich chocolate, those same benefits may help our bodies fight toxins, free radicals and oxidative DNA damage. Chocolate facial anyone? (Just don’t do this around your dog who might mistake your face as a treat. Plus, dark chocolate is toxic to our furry friends, so keep it far out of reach!)
In one study that compared milk chocolate eaters to dark chocolate eaters, those who enjoyed dark chocolate ate 15 percent fewer calories and reported feeling fewer cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. Love what you eat and lose weight? Possibly, thanks to dark chocolate!
Prone to getting that nasty winter cough? Dark chocolate contains theobromine, a plant substance that has been shown to relieve cough symptoms by suppressing vagal nerve activity. Similar to caffeine, but not as potent, theobromine can also help you feel more alert and awake. (Contrary to popular belief, the caffeine content in chocolate is low, with approximately 26 mg per 1.5 ounces of chocolate as compared to 160 mg per 8 ounces of coffee. That said, if you know that dark chocolate keeps you up at night, plan to enjoy it earlier in the day.)
In 2017, Frontiers in Nutrition reviewed research studies looking at the short-term and long-term effects of eating dark chocolate on memory and cognition. They found that the flavanols (powerful phytonutrients found in dark chocolate, as well as other plant-based foods such as green tea) help to improve memory and cognition both immediately after eating the chocolate and long-term in those who ate dark chocolate daily. They concluded that eating a good quality dark chocolate daily could prevent natural age-related decline in cognition. With the overstimulation in today's busy world, between family responsibilities, work and social media, who couldn't use a little boost in memory?
Speaking of boost, researchers have identified several mechanisms by which chocolate could possibly affect mood. These mechanisms include orosensory characteristics, psychoactive components, and nutritional composition. Chocolate’s highly palatable combination of sweetness, creaminess, and the optimal mouthfeel is believed to affect mood by providing an enjoyable and blissful experience. When chocolate is consumed and enjoyed, endorphin levels rise in the body and higher levels of endorphins may have feel-good effects. Some research proposes a relationship between chocolate’s carbohydrate and magnesium contents and the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. The carbohydrates in chocolate increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is associated with energy and alertness. Magnesium can support serotonin and dopamine synthesis, which are neurotransmitters associated with calmness and pleasure, respectively.
Need a little energy boost during your long run or bike ride? Or, perhaps dark chocolate calls your name during afternoon work slumps? Dark chocolate contains psychoactive compounds, such as theobromine and caffeine, which may give an instant energy boost and improve stamina (which may be another reason why chocolate has traditionally been labeled a romance food!)
One type of flavanol in dark chocolate is epicatechin, which has been shown to reduce hypertension, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease. How? Epicatechins stimulate nitric oxide production within the body, which acts to dilate blood vessels and reduce blood clots. Researchers have shown a direct relationship between the amount of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate and epicatechin levels in the body. More epicatechin may equal more antioxidant power. (That said, this is not a green light to eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner!)
Really? Possibly. Dark chocolate has been shown to correct imbalances in the body related to stress and may significantly reduce levels of stress hormones. Women who ate dark chocolate during pregnancy reported that they were better able to handle stress than those who avoided dark chocolate. One Finnish study has even claimed that happier babies come from moms who ate dark chocolate during pregnancy. Could dark chocolate equal less crying? Hmmm…
What makes dark chocolate "good quality?" Since flavanol content is not listed on food labels, look for organic, fair trade, minimal ingredients, and greater than 70 percent. Some studies show that organic compared to conventional dark chocolate may have more nutrients intact. Fair trade, or direct trade, chocolate means that farmers who work extremely hard to plant, grow, and harvest that precious cacao get paid fair prices to support themselves and their families.
Look at the ingredient labels to ensure there are simple ingredients like cacao or cocoa solids (or cocoa liquor) and cane sugar or coconut sugar. There may also be cocoa butter, which is the fat portion of cacao and is added for a silky mouthfeel—this is okay since most grocery-store dark chocolates have added cocoa butter. However, just know that it may displace some natural cacao solids where the nutritional benefits reside. (If you can find a local chocolate maker that only uses cacao and sugar, that’s best! Here is one of my personal favorites in Atlanta.)
If you want all of the nutrition benefits, make sure there are no milk solids or dairy, which can bind to the antioxidant compounds making them less available to you! Finally, while it's not guaranteed that 70 percent cocoa solids offer the best quality cocoa, the higher percentage of cocoa content generally means it likely contains less "other stuff," such as more sugar, milk solids, and emulsifiers.
Based on the research, enjoying 1–1.5 ounces of dark chocolate a day as a part of a well-balanced diet can be healthy for your body, mind, and soul!