We can’t seem to go more than a month without another headline declaring the wonders of dark chocolate for our physical and mental health. While we’d all love to believe that unwrapping a candy bar after dinner every night is good for us, can we believe the hype?
Today, we’re helping you wade through the myths and exaggerations to uncover the facts and determine whether or not you should be adding dark chocolate to your vitamin regimen.
All Chocolate is Not Created Equal
As long ago as 1900BC, chocolate was served as a frothy hot or cold drink in Aztec and Mayan cultures. It wasn’t until Spanish explorers began arriving that the cocoa bean was introduced to Spain and then most of Europe. It didn’t take too long for Europeans to learn how to make sugar and vanilla with the somewhat bitter cocoa, and before long, the chocolate craze was born!
Today’s chocolate is made through a series of refining. In fact, if you were to try the cocoa seed fresh from the tree, you would find it to be extremely bitter. Also, most cocoa now comes from Western Africa, most specifically Ivory Coast.
How It’s Made
The first step in converting cocoa beans to delicious chocolate is fermentation, after which the beans are allowed to dry and then cleaned and roasted. Next, the shells are removed. These are known as cacao nibs (you may purchase these separately) and are ground into what is known as cocoa mass.
Chocolate liquor is created by heating the cocoa mass into a liquid; this mass can be further separated into cocoa solids or cocoa butter. The ratios of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and other ingredients such as milk determine the type of chocolate.
Types of Chocolate and Why It Matters
Baking chocolate contains no sugar, only cocoa solids and butter (semisweet chocolate is similar and can be used interchangeably). Sweet chocolate (dark chocolate is considered sweet chocolate) contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter (or sometimes vegetable oils), and sugar.
Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate plus condensed milk or milk powder and white chocolate contains no cocoa solids and instead just the cocoa butter with the addition of milk and sugar.
While it might seem like we just gave you a boring history lesson, we provided you with some vital information. Part of the danger that the chocolate hype presents is in sending you rushing headlong towards a chocolate bar. The problem with this, however, is that it’s often not candy bars that are being studied and tested.
For example, one study published in the Chemistry Central Journal found levels of antioxidants in chocolate are higher than in other superfoods like acai and pomegranates. However, the study tested non-alkalized cocoa powder. If you grab a chocolate bar off the shelf, you’re likely grabbing milk chocolate, but even if it’s labeled dark chocolate, the FDA doesn’t regulate this kind of claim.
What we’re saying, sadly, is that Cadbury Eggs aren’t going to lower your blood pressure, improve your cardiovascular health, or sharpen your memory, but don’t give up on chocolate altogether!
The body of research around the benefits of dark chocolate is extensive, and much of it centers around the discovery of flavonoids and polyphenols inside the chocolate. Antioxidants are powerful compounds believed to fight against the negative impact of stress on our cells.
They play powerful roles in preventing all sorts of diseases and foods such as pomegranates, acai, and blueberries are often heralded as superfoods thanks to their high levels of flavonoids and polyphenols.
The study we referenced earlier, published in the Chemistry Central Journal, found that natural or non-alkalized cocoa powder contained a higher total flavonol content than all other superfruits tested (including the ones we just mentioned).
Also, total antioxidant activity was higher per serving in dark chocolate versus per serving in superfruit juices (with the exception of pomegranate juice), with chocolate taking home the award for the most polyphenol content per serving.
That’s great that dark chocolate has such a large amount of these unpronounceable ingredients, but what does that have to do with us? As it turns out, flavonoids and polyphenols have a huge impact on our health.
Some of the benefits of dark chocolate flavanols include helping to protect the heart. Flavanols support nitric oxide (NO) production in the inner cell lining of our blood vessels (known as the endothelium). This allows blood vessels to relax, which in turn improves blood flow, which in turn lowers blood pressure (think of it as the same amount traveling along larger pipes).
Another indication of cocoa’s possible blood pressure benefits is the Kuna Indians. The Kuna live on the Caribbean Coast of Panama in relative isolation. They have been the source of study thanks to this, and the fact that they traditionally drink up to five cups of a cocoa beverage daily (the cocoa is either grown at home or sourced from nearby Columbia).
Researchers posit that thanks to the cocoa, the Kuna enjoy extremely low hypertension rates despite having a higher than normal salt intake. The Kuna also experience much lower heart disease, cancer, and diabetes than those who live in urban area.
Help for Diabetes?
Speaking of diabetes, one promising area of study into the benefits of dark chocolate has included studies on how cocoa interacts with the body’s insulin sensitivity. A 2015 study looked at type 2 diabetics and found that those who consumed just under an ounce of dark chocolate for eight weeks experienced lowered blood pressure and decreased fasting blood sugar.
The subjects who consumed eight ounces of white chocolate for eight weeks did not experience these benefits. The reason? Researchers believe it’s polyphenol count of the dark chocolate that gets such great returns. White chocolate, which does not contain cocoa mass, does not contain the antioxidants that dark chocolate enjoys.
Results That Last?
As we mentioned earlier, studies about the benefits of dark chocolate on our health are common. One such study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association is an example. It backs up previous finds: that dark chocolate may improve vascular health.
The study included twenty individuals with peripheral artery disease (PAD) who experience limb impairment due to loss of blood flow. Half were given 40 grams of dark chocolate (at least 85% cocoa), and the other half were given milk chocolate (less than 30% cocoa). The participants were then tested on their ability to walk on a treadmill.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that participants who ate dark chocolate walked 11% farther than participants who ate milk chocolate, on average. Again, however, it’s important to put these gains in perspective. Relatively speaking, 11% is fairly modest, perhaps even more modest than other potential treatment methods.
Plus, the study was short-term and only included twenty participants. While we can say results are interesting or even promising, if your doctor starts prescribing chocolate it should probably cause you to raise the red flag!
Bias We Can See?
One of the most important things you should understand as you sift through headlines and news reports on the benefits of dark chocolate is that hundreds of the studies are sponsored by the chocolate industry. That study we mentioned earlier that found high levels of antioxidants in chocolate? It was sponsored by Hershey’s.
While it’s not uncommon for large industries (such as the dairy industry or the almond industry) to sponsor studies that are otherwise unbiased, it’s worth noting that forcing millions of dollars to drive research, create academic chairs, and so forth, can cause researchers to create an implicit or explicit bias–encouraging the researcher, for example, to set up a study that benefits chocolate.
Plus, studies are being diverted from other potentially more beneficial resources. What might we be studying if we weren’t studying chocolate? We might never know.
Some suggest that chocolate’s foray into academic research came about as a result of the recent linking of sugar to the obesity epidemic as well as the fair-trade movement, which brought to light the child and slave labor that the industry depended on.
Chocolate Still Wins!
Ultimately, what we want answered is the question: is dark chocolate good for you? The good news is that, despite the exaggeration of media headlines and the potential bias caused by Big Candy study sponsorships, the facts remain: cocoa has some fantastic ingredients that might do great things for our health.
While you should steer away from the milk and white chocolates, and make sure your chocolate of choice contains high levels of cocoa, moderate amounts of chocolate are a great alternative to some of the awful late-night snacks you could be treating yourself to!
An even better option? Make your own and create the best dark chocolate! Use premium ingredients such as raw cocoa to ensure you’re getting maximum benefits. Or, add a scoop or two of cocoa powder to your healthy smoothie recipe for a delicious treat without any of the bad stuff (like sugar and vegetable oils).
No matter how you enjoy it, dark chocolate can be an excellent treat that might even improve your health. That’s worth smiling over!