Though it often gets a bad rap as mere candy, dark chocolate can actually be beneficial to your health. Dark chocolate is derived from the cacao tree, more specifically the beans. These cacao beans (also known as cocoa beans), are packed with natural antioxidants similar to blueberries and green tea. In order to better understand dark chocolate health benefits, you need to gain a better understanding about moderation and the finer details of how the compounds within the chocolate interact with your body.
How Do You Define “Dark Chocolate?”
Though it is normally listed as such right there on the label, dark chocolate is technically classified as being created by adding sugar and fat to cocoa. In general, it will have no milk added, or very little. This is why you find that dark chocolate has a more bitter taste than milk chocolate – because it is more “pure cocoa” than other types of chocolate. This is also why you will find that dark chocolate has more health benefits than other types of chocolate, with little downside.
A Brief History
Chocolate has its roots (no pun intended) in South America, where it has been cultivated for 3,000 years. Scientists have dated the use of chocolate at a site in Honduras to about 1100-1400 BCE. The early use of cocoa seeds suggest that it was used to flavor food and drink and that it was probably more similar in taste to what we now call dark chocolate. Soon enough, chocolate was picked up by European explorers and made its way around the world.
The following nutritional data are derived from a typical 1-ounce serving of dark chocolate, which is what most doctors would recommend as a good daily serving in order to access the health benefits of dark chocolate properly.
Protein: 1.7 g
Total Fat: 10 g
Saturated Fat: 6 g
Cholesterol: 0.28 g
Fiber: 3.14 g
Carbohydrate: 13.15 g
Sugar: 12.58 g
Sodium: 29.5 mg
Potassium: 153 mg
Calcium: 9.1 mg
Vitamin E: 102.49 mg
Riboflavin: 32.3 mg
The above numbers simply represent the bare bones facts you can find out at a government website, but it doesn’t represent the true nutritional and health value that has been uncovered in dark chocolate by researchers. The presence of antioxidants in cocoa beans is indisputable. Plants such as the cacao tree have antioxidants within them to help them survive in their environment, and it is these same antioxidants that remain within the dark chocolate sitting in your local supermarket.
Antioxidants have really come into the forefront over the past decade or two because scientists have discovered that they help the body primarily by combatting free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules of oxygen that accrue over time and damage healthy cells. Such cells have been attributed to various chronic illnesses. Antioxidants have also been linked to bringing cholesterol to healthy levels, enhance blood flow and reduce blood pressure.
To be more specific, when we are talking about antioxidants that produce dark chocolate health benefits we are talking about polyphenols. Polyphenols, which are also found in oranges, berries, and soybeans, actually comprise more than 10% of the weight a raw dry cocoa bean. Dark chocolate also contains flavanols, which are also found in red grapes and tea. If you’ve ever read up on the health benefits of green tea or wine then you have a good idea of what kind of benefits you can derive from dark chocolate.
Stimulating the Mind
Everyone knows about the “feel good” feeling you get when you eat chocolate. This occurs for a variety of reasons, and studies have shown that this is primarily due to the presence of three key compounds.
Theobromine is the first compound, a natural and mild stimulant that is similar to caffeine but lacks the punch of that compound. Theobromine has also been used in high levels as a cough suppressant (roughly 5 times what you get in a serving of dark chocolate). Theobromine is also the compound that is harmful to many animals, and the reason that you should not share chocolate with your pets.
Caffeine, theobromine’s cousin, is the second compound. We all know what caffeine can do for you – especially on Monday morning – but in the case of dark chocolate we are talking about very small amounts. A 1.5-ounce dark chocolate bar only contains about 27 mg of caffeine, versus a mug (12 oz.) of coffee that usually contains about 200 mg of caffeine.
Phenylethylamine is the final compound and the one that primarily produces that “feel good” feeling. Phenylethylamine causes your brain to release endorphins, which is the same chemical associated with feelings of love.
Another dark chocolate health benefit is that it contains a variety of minerals, such as iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and copper.
1. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
2. Bender’s Dictionary of Nutrition and Food Technology
3. Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition
5. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, Joseph Pizzorno, and Lara Pizzorno.
image credits: John Loo