Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Have you always wondered if chocolate is truly "healthy"? Well, YES - in moderation. Chocolate has actually been shown to enhance mood, protect cognition, lower blood pressure, protect our heart, and much more!
How is chocolate made?
Chocolate comes from the Cacao tree. The fruit from the cacao tree is a football-shaped pod and each pod contains roughly 50 cacao beans. Once harvested, the beans are fermented anywhere from 2-8 days. The length of fermentation depends on the variety of cacao. This fermentation process alters the natural bitterness and produces the delicious chocolate flavor we know and love.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned and roasted. After roasting, the shell is removed, leaving the cacao nib. The nibs are ground into a liquid referred to as chocolate liquor and then pressed to remove excess fatty liquid, or cocoa butter. The chocolate liquor is further refined to produce cocoa solids.
*It takes approximately 500 cacao beans to make 1 lb of bittersweet chocolate*
Dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate vs. white chocolate
Dark chocolate consists of anywhere from 50-90% cocoa solids mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.
Milk chocolate contains 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk, and sugar.
White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids, only cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
*Some lower-quality chocolates may also add vegetable oils and artificial flavoring*
Do all Types of Chocolate have Beneficial Health Properties?
While all types of chocolate can be good for the soul, dark chocolate has the highest amount of cocoa. This means that dark chocolate contains the highest amount of nutrients compared to milk chocolate and white chocolate.
Health benefits of dark chocolate
Cocoa is naturally high in flavanols. Flavanols are active compounds found in plants that increase nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide helps to relax blood vessels, increasing blood flow, thus lowering blood pressure.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at cognitive function in older adults after an 8-week trial of consuming low, intermediate, or high cocoa flavanol drinks. Those who consumed the high or intermediate cocoa flavanol drink showed significant improvements in cognitive function when compared to those in the low-cocoa flavanol group. This small study suggests that habitual intake of cocoa can potentially help to protect cognition through advanced age.
While chocolate has long been associated with happiness and enjoyment, a study published earlier this year found that participants who ate 85% dark chocolate daily maintained a better overall mood than others who ate chocolate with less cocoa or no chocolate at all. This suggests that active compounds in cocoa may have mood-enhancing effects.
The cocoa bean also contains high amounts of theobromine. Theobromine is an antioxidant that has been shown to decrease inflammation and may help to lower blood pressure.
A study published in 2015 found that habitual chocolate consumers had a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke when compared to individuals that did not eat chocolate.
While more research is needed, preliminary studies have linked flavanols to increased insulin sensitivity, which can potentially decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.
One ounce of dark chocolate that contains 60% to 69% of pure cocoa provides 19% DV of manganese, 17% DV of copper, 12% DV of magnesium, and 10% DV of iron.
If chocolate is healthy, I should eat it every day...right?
While dark chocolate is rich in several different nutrients, this tasty treat is still a high-calorie food. Like all things in life, chocolate is meant to be enjoyed in moderation! The typical serving size for chocolate is roughly 1-2 oz (picture 3 small, dove chocolate squares).
From one chocoholic to another, here are a few tips:
Stick to dark chocolate. I think we can all agree that dark chocolate is a bit of an acquired taste. Try starting with 50% cacao chocolates and slowly work your way up to slightly higher cacao containing chocolate options.
Look for chocolates with added nuts. This adds a bit of fiber and helps to ensure you’re satisfied with an appropriate portion.
Stick to the serving size of 1-2 oz.
Savor the rich cocoa flavor by letting the dark chocolate melt in your mouth. This can also help to increase mindfulness and discourage overindulging.
Dark Chocolate. (2022). The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/dark-chocolate/
How is chocolate made -- from bean to bar. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://www.scienceofcooking.com/chocolate/how-is-chocolate-made.htm
Ask the Expert: Chocolate’s Health Benefits - Today’s Dietitian Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0216p10.shtml
Martin, M., & Sonia Ramos, S. (1991, June). Impact of cocoa flavanols on human health. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 151, Article 112121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2021.112121.
Shin, J. H., Kim, C. S., Cha, L., Kim, S., Lee, S., Chae, S., Chun, W. Y., & Shin, D. M. (2022, January). Consumption of 85% cocoa dark chocolate improves mood in association with gut microbial changes in healthy adults: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 99, 108854. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2021.108854