The health benefits of dark chocolate
Chocolate is derived from the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree. The numerous health benefits of dark chocolate and cacao powder are mainly provided by its dense phytonutrient and mineral content.
Phytonutrients are compounds in plants that give them colour, smell and taste. They are biologically active and food often contains more than one type of phytochemical and, therefore, present several biological actions that can support health.
Cacao contains a number of different phytochemicals that have been researched for their health benefits including flavanols, alkaloids, anthocyanins and catechins. The names do not really matter. What we are interested in is how they can support our health.
There are plenty of chocolate products on the market and they are not all equal in terms of providing health benefits. In order to understand which products are the most beneficial, it is useful to look at the processing method of chocolate.
After roasting, the outer shell of cacao beans is removed leaving cacao nibs which consist of around 50% cacao butter. These nibs can be used as toppings for a variety of dishes or ground into a cacao paste.
If the nibs are ground into a paste the majority of the cacao butter is then removed leaving the cacao solid.
This solid can be ground into cacao powder or other ingredients added to make chocolate. If chocolate is made some of the cacao butter is added back as well as other ingredients such as sugar and flavourings.
The phytochemical and mineral content is within the cacao solid and hence why cacao powder and chocolate with a high percentage of cacao solid provides health benefits rather than milk or white chocolate.
Cacao butter itself however is not completely without health benefits. It contains the monounsaturated fat oleic acid that has been studied widely in respect of olive oil and benefits to cardiovascular health.
It also contains stearic acid that has been found to protect against the formation of arterial plaques. White chocolate is made from cacao butter with added ingredients such as milk and sugar.
Dark chocolate normally contains 50% and upwards of cacao solids, cacao butter and sugar. The higher the percentage of cacao solids the more health benefits that are provided through phytochemical and mineral content as well as the benefit of the reduced sugar content.
Milk chocolate contains up to 50% cacao solids, cacao butter, sugar and milk. It often also contains butter, vegetable oils and artificial colourings and flavourings, not the ideal profile for health.
Returning to the cacao solids which provide us with the majority of the health benefits, the phytochemicals are supportive of cardiovascular health, brain function, mood and the nervous system, metabolic health and the gut microbiome.
Let us look firstly at the cardiovascular system and the health benefits of dark chocolate. Cacao phytochemicals activate the enzyme, endothelial nitric oxide synthase, resulting in nitric oxide release. This leads to the arterial walls relaxing with a consequential fall in blood pressure.
If you have never thought about how this works, visualise travelling on the London underground. When the train is packed and you are pushed against the side of the train walls there is a lot of pressure on them. There are two ways to reduce this pressure. Either the train needs to be bigger or some people need to leave the train.
When the arterial walls relax there is more space within them and less pressure. Reducing the volume of blood, just like removing some people from the train, will also reduce the pressure.
There is an additional mechanism through which the phytochemicals aid in lowering blood pressure by reducing the blood volume. Angiotensin-converting enzyme activity results in the retention of sodium and water in the body with a consequential rise in blood pressure.
Inhibitors of the enzyme prevent the body from retaining sodium and water resulting in lower blood volume and a blood pressure-lowering effect. This is the action of ACE inhibitor drugs. Phytochemicals in cacao exhibit the same mechanism of action to lower blood pressure.
It is not just the phytochemical content of cacao that is beneficial to cardiovascular health. Cacao solids contain a significant amount of magnesium and potassium that are cardioprotective. Also, the fibre content of cacao has been shown to improve the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) to high-density lipoprotein (HDL) ratio.
The health benefits of cacao phytochemicals do not stop at the cardiovascular system. They are important for brain health and the nervous system.
The action of stimulating the release of nitric oxide that we discussed earlier, also increases blood flow to the brain. This results in an increased supply of oxygen and the formation of new blood vessels, particularly in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is associated with memory and implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and depression.
The compound brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is associated with the growth and repair of neurons; it has been shown to increase spatial memory, improve reaction time, and slow down age-related mental decline. Cacao phytochemicals have been shown to increase BDNF.
Many compounds within dark chocolate impact the brain and mood. If you have ever wondered why you feel more positive, contented or even euphoric after eating dark chocolate it may be attributable to the compounds theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide.
The high magnesium content is also beneficial to our mood, being required to produce neurotransmitters promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.
Cacao phytochemicals are also able to modify the gut microbiota resulting in the release of anti-inflammatory compounds. The gut microbiota is discussed frequently and for good reason. As nutritional science evolves we learn more about the linkage of the gut microbiota to chronic disease including metabolic, skin and nervous system health.
Antioxidants protect cells from free radical damage and cacao solids being very rich in antioxidants play a role in chronic disease, cancer and ageing.
Chocolate has even been shown to be useful in metabolic health reducing fat storage and insulin resistance.
So now we know the health benefits of dark chocolate, how much and what chocolate should we be eating? More health benefits will be gained the higher the percentage of cacao solids, the least amount of sugar and artificial colourings or additives.
The higher the percentage of cacao solids the richer the chocolate and the more bitter the taste. It is very hard to overeat on 85% dark chocolate. 20-30g is about the maximum amount you would probably want to eat.
Choose cacao powder over cocoa powder. Cacao powder is generally described as raw because it is not roasted like cocoa powder. The roasting not only reduces the nutritional value but cocoa powder is often enhanced with sugar, additives and preservatives to extend its shelf life and reduce the bitter taste of cacao.
Both dark chocolate and cacao powder are very versatile in their use. As well as just nibbling on a square or two of dark chocolate you can place some on the top of porridge and let it melt, bake with it, add cacao to smoothies or porridge and experiment with savoury dishes and flavours. Try adding cacao to a black bean chilli. It is delicious!
Buy the best quality chocolate within your budget that you actually enjoy. We all have different tastes and preferences and there is no point eating something you do not enjoy!
For the health benefits of dark chocolate try this cacao smoothie.