The story of chocolate begins with the simple bean of the cacao tree. Over 2,000 years ago, the Aztecs were the first to turn those beans into something edible — they pounded them with water to create a bitter drink for use during sacred rituals, and as an aphrodisiac.
These days, cacao beans undergo a complex process that transforms them into the familiar chocolate we know and love. It often contains added sugars, milk solids and emulsifiers (to give it that decadent mouthfeel). Much of the chocolate we eat is also treated with alkali salts which remove its bitter taste. Despite these added ingredients, this remixed classic may have some health benefits.
The Health Benefits of Chocolate
Polyphenols, the main component of cacao beans, are believed to be responsible for many of the health benefits of chocolate. These benefits include lowering blood pressure, reducing high blood sugar and correcting blood cholesterol levels. Polyphenols can also reduce harmful inflammation and excessive blood clotting. Correcting these imbalances is key for preventing and managing chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular diseases (CVD), including heart disease, stroke, heart failure and many other conditions linked to the buildup of cholesterol in our arteries. While more people die from CVD each year than from any other disease or medical condition, most cases are preventable. Consuming a diet high in polyphenols is one way we may be able to lower our chances of getting CVD and other chronic diseases.
In a meta-analysis of the health benefits of chocolate consumption, those who ate the most chocolate had lower rates of CVD and stroke. Another study looked specifically at levels of polyphenol intake and found that moderate and high consumers were much less likely to die from CVD over time. Small clinical trials also suggest benefits of chocolate related to blood pressure, blood cholesterol and other factors linked to CVD risk.
Which Type of Chocolate Is the Healthiest?
While there aren’t any specific guidelines about chocolate for health, it’s worth considering which types of chocolate contain the most polyphenols. Raw cacao beans contain the highest level, and the amount in various chocolates generally depends on how they’ve been processed. Recent research on commercially available chocolate in the US reveals that natural cocoa powder contains the highest polyphenol content, followed by baking chocolate (unsweetened) and dark chocolate (generally labeled as 50 to 80 percent cacao). Milk chocolate and syrup contain far fewer polyphenols. Polyphenols are nonexistent in white chocolate because it contains no cacao at all.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Before we rush out to start consuming chocolate by the handful, there are a few other things to consider. First of all, the healthiest form of chocolate might actually be the hardest to eat (100 percent cacao anyone?). Sugar and milk are often added to make a more palatable treat. Therefore, each bite of chocolate we take also comes with added sugars and fat. We also might have to eat fairly large amounts of chocolate for possible health benefits. And with all that chocolate comes excess calories that may lead to weight gain over time (unless you balance it out with exercise), which could cancel out some of the awesome health benefits. The good news is, there are ways to get that chocolate fix and enjoy the possible health benefits without overdoing it.
Get Your Chocolate Fix (in Moderation) and Don’t Stop There
These tips can help you enjoy the health benefits of chocolate’s polyphenols as part of a healthy diet.
- Add one to two tablespoons of natural cocoa powder to your coffee, tea or smoothie. Or, get creative and add it to other foods you enjoy. Choose natural cocoa powder, as opposed to Dutch processed cocoa which contains significantly fewer polyphenols.
- Make simple switches. Try replacing chocolate syrup with plain, natural cocoa and a dash of sugar (until you get used to the taste). Use unsweetened baking chocolate instead of semi-sweet chocolate when baking as you learn to appreciate chocolate flavor without all the extra sugar.
- Compare labels. All dark chocolates are not created equal. Look for those labeled as a higher percent cacao with fewer added sugars and keep portions reasonable — about one ounce at a time.
- Remember that plenty of foods (other than chocolate) contain polyphenols. These include tea, coffee, fruits, veggies and nuts. Higher polyphenol intake from a variety of foods can significantly reduce the risk of death from CVD and chronic disease.
- Keep your heart healthy by choosing an active lifestyle, not smoking and learning to manage stress.