I am a known chocolate lover, so I am probably not impartial, but I will do my best to remain objective while writing this article, haha)
Is dark chocolate healthy? Dark chocolate IS healthy (consumed in moderation). Let’s see why.
Proven health benefits of dark chocolate
It is scientifically proven that cocoa (and, consequently, chocolate with a high cocoa percentage) is good for cardiovascular health. It most probably improves cognitive performance too, but the available research has not gathered enough evidence for a health claim on cognition yet.
These cardiovascular benefits of cocoa are provided by the flavanols (chemical compounds) found in it. The most beneficial flavanols for human health in cocoa are believed to be catechin and epicatechin. They have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and thus easily reach our brain. Although the mechanism of their beneficial action is not entirely clear, they are believed to have a spectrum of protective properties, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiplatelet (platelets are cells in the blood that stick together forming a clot), immunoregulatory, and hypotensive (reducing blood pressure).
Consuming as little as 200 mg of cocoa flavanols is enough to achieve a positive health effect. For reference: 200 mg of cocoa flavanols are found in just 2.5 g of cocoa powder with a high content of flavanols or in 10 g of dark chocolate with a high content of flavanols. Most cocoa products, however, are made using the so-called Dutch processing method, which strips the cocoa bean of most of its healthy flavanols. The consumption of unprocessed (“raw”) cocoa products is therefore preferred. More on this below.
The Kuna paradox
The Kuna Indians of San Blas, Panama, drink an average of three 0.3-liter cups of cocoa drink per day. That’s almost one liter! The prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) among Kuna Islanders is very low (2.2%) and blood pressure does not increase with age there. The islanders of Kuna, unlike the inhabitants of mainland Panama, practically do not suffer from diabetes and cancer, they do not have myocardial infarctions and strokes. Among the Kuna who migrated to the urban areas of Panama on the mainland, the occurrence of hypertension is much higher (10.7%) and reaches 45% in people over 60 years of age. That’s why it is believed that the consumption of the traditional cocoa drink in large quantities is an important factor in the excellent heart health of the Kuna Islanders.
Flavanol content in cocoa products
The content of flavanols in cocoa products is largely determined by the method of their processing. In the food industry, the so-called Dutch (alkaline) method is most often used. Alkali softens the bitter taste of cocoa. This process, however, destroys most of the beneficial plant compounds. The final product often contains as little as 0.5% flavanols compared to raw cocoa beans. The content of flavanols in cocoa products cannot be determined at home. Some chocolate manufacturers test their products and report flavanol content either on the label or on their website. It is believed that unprocessed (“raw”) cocoa products have a much higher content of flavanols than those that have undergone industrial processing. Such products include the so-called “raw” chocolate, “raw” cacao nibs and “raw” cocoa powder. If the chocolate wrapper says it was produced using the Acticoa method, then it is also guaranteed to be high in polyphenols. Barry Callebaut’s patented Acticoa method is a special process that preserves up to 80% of the natural polyphenol content of semi-finished cocoa products.
The best chocolate?
The main ingredient of dark chocolate is cocoa mass. Manufacturers also use cocoa butter, an emulsifier (mostly soy lecithin) and sugar. Milk chocolate, in addition to the above ingredients, contains milk powder. The higher the proportion of cocoa mass, the higher the percentage indicated on the chocolate wrapper. Technically, so-called white chocolate is not chocolate at all, since it does not contain cocoa mass.
When it comes to health benefits, the principle behind choosing chocolate is simple: the higher the percentage of cocoa, the better. That is, the more cocoa, the less sugar. Healthy chocolate is one that contains at least 70% cocoa mass.
Other nutrition benefits of chocolate
Dark chocolate, even the types that have undergone traditional industrial processing, supply minerals that our body needs. Specifically, one serving (100 calories) of dark chocolate (70%-85% cocoa) contains:
- 20% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of manganese,
- 18% of the RDA of copper,
- 13% of the RDA of iron,
- 10% of the RDA of magnesium.