Health Benefits of Chocolate

Sure chocolate tastes good, but did you know it can also be good for you?

Credit: Flickr/The Pack/Karen

Dark chocolate can be a delicious part of a healthy diet

I’ve got good news for you chocolate lovers; the right type of chocolate can actually be called a health food

But before you reach for that Kit Kat, read on.

How Chocolate is Made

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans — seeds that grow on cacao trees. After harvesting and processing, cacao nibs are what’s left of the original bean. These nibs are made of 47% cocoa solids and 53% cocoa butter, the major source of fat in chocolate.

Stearic acid, the type of saturated fat contained in chocolate, is converted to monounsaturated fat when eaten.

Chocolate liquor, a paste which is alcohol free, is also made at this time. Ingredients like sugar and flavours are often added to the chocolate liquor to make it taste better.

Health Benefits of Chocolate

Flavonoids, natural plant antioxidants, are found in large concentrations in cocoa products. In fact, 28 grams of dark chocolate contains more antioxidants than 74 grams of blueberries. These flavonoids are responsible for most of the health benefits you obtain from chocolate.

Phenols are also found in chocolate. These are the same compounds found in red wine, tea, fruits and vegetables that help decrease risk of coronary disease.

Chocolate also has significant quantities of:

  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Sodium
  • Vitamins A1, B1, B2, D and E

There’s evidence that cocoa-rich foods may:

  • Decrease blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks or other heart problems.
  • Improve your cholesterol profile by lowering bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol.
  • Keep your arteries clear of plaque by reducing the stickiness of blood platelets.
  • Reduce inflammation in blood vessels but interestingly this only seems to work in women. 
  • Lower risk of diabetes.
  • Improve spatial memory.
  • Increase your sex drive.
  • Make you feel good.

And you thought it only tasted good!

Drawbacks to Chocolate

While there are benefits to chocolate, it also contains some compounds that can create problems.

It contains caffeine, which may cause problems for some people, but the amount of caffeine is a lot lower than it is in coffee.

Chocolate also stimulates the same regions of the brain as cocaine and marijuana, but don’t worry, it would take at least 25 pounds to get any sort of “high”.

It’s also a relatively calorie-dense food, so you have to be careful how much you eat to avoid putting on weight.

Why Women Crave Chocolate

Chocolate may impact neurotransmitter levels in the brain.

Many women say they crave chocolate especially in the days preceding their period. During this time there is a drop in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in feeling good.

Chocolate may help boost serotonin levels in the brain so “chocoholics” may actually have a physical craving.

Different Types of Chocolate

Not all types of chocolate are created equal. The main types of chocolate are:

  • Unsweetened chocolate, which is made from 100% cocoa liquor and tastes very bitter.
  • Bittersweet, semisweet or dark chocolate, which contain 35% or more cocoa solids and no milk powder.
  • Milk chocolate, which has a minimum 10% chocolate liquor and 12% milk solids.

Pure chocolate (100% cocoa) has the fewest calories, less sugar, more protein, more fibre, more antioxidants and fewer artificial ingredients than your typical candy bar. Here’s a comparison that shows the difference between “good” and “bad” chocolate.

A 50-gram 85% cocoa bar has:

  • 250 calories
  • 5 grams of protein
  • 10 grams of carbohydrates (6.25 grams of sugar, 3.75 grams of fibre)
  • 22.5 grams of fat (14 grams of saturated fat)

A 50-gram Snickers bar contains:

  • 282 calories
  • 4 grams protein
  • 35 grams of carbohydrates (30 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fibre)
  • 14 grams of fat (5 grams of saturated fat)

What Type of Chocolate to Eat

To get the most health benefits, look for dark chocolate containing 70% or more cocoa. If you want to include even more healthy fats, look for added nuts in your dark chocolate. But nuts add calories, so if you’re trying to lose weight skip the nuts.

Avoid white chocolate as it doesn’t have any of the flavonoids of its darker cousin. You get the sugar and calories without any benefit.

And remember, over-indulging in even good chocolate can increase your waistline which negates any of the health benefits. So indulge, but do so in moderation.

You can get benefit from eating even a small amount of dark chocolate each day – the equivalent size of a couple of Hersey Kisses. Enjoy!