You might have heard that chocolate is actually a healthy substance when eaten in moderation, but maybe you're skeptical. Is this wishful thinking? Take heart. Research indicates that regularly eating a small amount of high-quality dark chocolate is good for the cardiovascular system.
How Can Chocolate Be a Healthy Food?
Chocolate provides heart-healthy advantages because of its rich flavonol and flavanol content. Flavonols and flavanols have a similar molecular structure; both are types of flavonoids. These are natural plant chemicals, or polyphenols, known for their powerful antioxidant effects.
Is chocolate really a plant, though?
Chocolate's main component is cacao or cocoa, the roasted form of cacao. Cacao is obtained from cacao beans, which technically aren't beans, but tree seeds. It's the cacao flavonoids that provide widespread benefits for your cardiovascular system.
These plant-based nutrients have positive effects on the heart, blood vessels and blood cells. For example, they help widen and relax blood vessels, which can reduce blood pressure. They help lower blood cholesterol levels. Antioxidants prevent plaque from forming in the arteries. A study published in 2003 also found that cocoa flavonoids reduce platelet aggregation, an action that can help prevent blood clots.
Focus on dark chocolate and pure cocoa to reap the benefits of heart-healthy flavonoids. Milk chocolate does not have the higher levels of flavonoids and it also contains sugar. In addition, the dairy content of milk chocolate blocks the effects of these polyphenols to some extent. White chocolate does not contain the main beneficial components.
A major problem with choosing among various chocolate products is the added ingredients, which might include sugar, corn syrup or other sweeteners. Those extra ingredients should be limited as much as possible when consuming chocolate products to get the most benefits from the active components.
The best choices indicate the percentage of cacao or cocoa on the packaging. Cheap candy bars don't show that on their labels. Ideally, select products with at least 70 percent cocoa or cacao. The label of a high-quality dark chocolate product also may list chocolate liquor, which is not an alcohol-based substance. It's chocolate liqueur that contains alcohol.
Adding Chocolate to Your Diet
You can eat a small amount of dark chocolate several times a week, but don't overdo it and add a large number of calories to your diet. For most people, that means limiting the amount to between 1 and 3 oz. per day.
Another reason for keeping your intake at this level is because chocolate contains palmitic acid, a type of saturated fat. Eating too much palmitic acid can cancel out the positive effects on cholesterol levels.
In regard to cocoa powder, the Cleveland Clinic recommends only choosing products that have not gone through Dutch processing to reduce their acidity. You can learn whether any brands you are considering are processed this way by doing a little online research.
Is Dark Chocolate A Superfood?
Dark chocolate – a superfood. Sounds too incredible to be true, doesn’t it? That’s because the answer, according to many physicians is: “yes. But let's not go overboard, there are some things to consider.
The more cacao dark chocolate has, the more it is rich in minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and zinc. The cocoa in dark chocolate also contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which may provide several health benefits.
Dark chocolate possesses several compounds that have antioxidant properties, namely flavanols and polyphenols. Compounds that possess antioxidant properties neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative stress. Oxidative stress refers to the damage that excessive amounts of free radicals inflict on cells and tissues in the body. Oxidative stress contributes to the natural aging process.
Eating cacao regularly may help reduce your chances of developing heart disease. Some of the compounds in dark chocolate, specifically flavanols, impact two major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The flavanols in dark chocolate stimulate nitric oxide production in the human body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate, or widen, which improves blood circulation and lowers blood pressure.
A 2015 study investigated the effects of chocolate consumption in 60 people with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. The researchers found that participants who consumed 25g of dark chocolate daily for 8 weeks had significantly lower blood pressure than those who ate the same quantity of white chocolate.
Cacao contains certain compounds, such as polyphenols and theobromine, that may lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the body and boost levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Doctors often refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad cholesterol” and HDL cholesterol as “good cholesterol.
According to a 2017 study, eating dark chocolate for 15 days helped raised HDL cholesterol levels in people living with HIV. However, the consumption of dark chocolate did not affect LDL cholesterol levels in the study participants.
Chronic inflammation is a part of the body’s natural immune response to germs and other harmful substances. Nevertheless, this may cause damage to cells and tissues and may increase the risk of some conditions, including type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain types of cancer. Dark chocolate contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that may help decrease inflammation in the body.
In 2018, a pilot study involving five healthy people examined the effects of dark chocolate on the immune system. The results suggested that consuming huge amounts of 70-percent dark chocolate alters the activities of genes that regulate immune response. However, it remains uncertain what this study will bring to medical science in the future.
In addition, a study published in 2018 found that eating 30 grams of dark chocolate containing 84% cocoa solids each day for 8 weeks significantly reduced inflammatory biomarkers in people with type 2 diabetes. The study’s authors concluded that there is a need for additional studies to assess the optimal amounts of dark chocolate to use when treating those with diabetes.
Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells do not respond to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance can lead to abnormally high levels of blood glucose, resulting in prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
A study from 2018, examining the relationship between regular dark chocolate consumption and blood glucose levels among Hispanic individuals, suggests that eating up to 48 g of 70-percent dark chocolate each day may help combat fasting glucose levels and reduce insulin resistance.
Eating dark chocolate may improve brain function and help prevent neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants and minerals, and usually contain less sugar than milk chocolate. Some research suggests that cacao may help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, and improve brain function. People interested in adding dark chocolate regularly to their diet should keep in mind that when there are added sugars it can be high in fat and calories, so moderation is key.