1. Chocolate has promising health benefits. Most studies to date are small, short-term, and use different types and amounts of chocolate.
2. Chocolate gets credit for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, preventing blood clots and more. It may even improve insulin resistance and lower body mass index.
3. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree. Chocolate’s health benefits come from flavanols, antioxidants found in the cocoa bean. Other foods rich in flavanols include red wine, tea, onions, peanuts, berries, apples, and cranberries.
4. To make chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, and roasted. Then the shells are removed and the insides (nibs) are ground up and pressed to produce chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor contains the two main ingredients in chocolate: cocoa butter (the natural fat of the cocoa bean) and cocoa solids. The leftover nibs are ground into cocoa powder.
5. Cocoa solids and cocoa powder are rich in flavanols. To tame the bitter flavor of flavanols, cocoa often undergoes “Dutch” or alkali processing. This improves the taste but removes the flavanols—and their health benefits. This makes choosing a heart-healthy chocolate a challenge.
6. Experts often recommend choosing dark chocolate that is at least “60-70% cocoa” to get the health benefits. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The health benefits depend on how the cocoa is processed. Natural cocoa powder that is not “Dutch” or alkali processed has the most flavanols, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, and then dark and semi-sweet chocolate.
7. When choosing chocolate, make sure that the added fat is cocoa butter, not palm, coconut, or hydrogenated oils. Cocoa butter contains a mixture of saturated fat and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fat is bad for the heart, but more than half of the saturated fat in cocoa butter is stearic acid. Stearic acid does not raise LDL cholesterol levels like other saturated and trans fats do.
8. Dark chocolate may provide health benefits, but even small amounts still add calories, fat, and sugar to your diet.
9. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how much dark chocolate you need to eat for the health benefits. Most experts recommend one ounce of dark chocolate daily, as long as you stay within your overall calorie limits.
10. We need longer-term, well-designed studies to confirm chocolate’s health benefits. In the meantime, choose wisely and eat all chocolate in moderation.
By Hollis Bass, MEd, RD, LD
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.