Chocolate lovers everywhere rejoice! Learn about the vital health benefits of chocolate and which type packs a healthy punch! Plus, is it really an aphrodisiac?
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Research shows chocolate can improve triglycerides, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood flow, sugar regulation, cognition, and mood. And some claim chocolate is an aphrodisiac. But don’t start gorging on Hershey’s bars just yet.
Not all types of chocolate lead to these amazing benefits. Research shows dark chocolate products rich in cocoa or, more specifically, rich in cocoa flavanols are where you reap the rewards.
What is cocoa?
Cocoa is a non-fat powder ground from roasted cacao beans (from the Theobroma cacao tree). Hot chocolate is made by heating cocoa with milk or water (plus some sugar). Chocolate is a combination of cocoa, cocoa butter (fat from the cacao bean), and sugar. Dark chocolate is exceptionally high in flavanols. Many of the health benefits of chocolate are due to its flavanols.
Flavanols are a type of phytochemical – plant nutrient with health benefits. More specifically, flavanols are a subclass of phytochemicals called polyphenols, which are also found in berries, tea, and wine.
1) Improved lipids
Cocoa powder and dark chocolate support healthy lipids (triglycerides, cholesterol) levels. Numerous studies have shown improvements in lipids. One study found a 21% reduction in females’ triglyceride levels, eating 41 grams of high polyphenol dark chocolate daily for 6 weeks.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder have been shown to increase HDL cholesterol (the protective form) and reduce LDL cholesterol (harmful when high). Additionally, numerous studies have found a decrease in LDL oxidation. When LDL is oxidized, it’s more likely to get trapped in the arteries and lead to plaque buildup. One study found that cocoa inhibited the oxidation of LDL by 75%!
2) Blood pressure support
Several studies have shown improvements in blood pressure. One study compared 100 grams (3.5 oz) of dark chocolate rich in polyphenols with white chocolate (90 grams), which has low to no polyphenols, for 15 days. The researchers found a reduction in blood pressure in those eating dark chocolate only.
Part of this reduction is likely due to dark chocolate’s ability to relax the blood vessels (vasodilation). When the blood vessel is more relaxed, blood flows more easily, blood pressure is reduced, and the heart does not have to work as hard (1, 2). This reduces the risk of injury in the blood vessels and decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
3) Blood thinning benefits
Dark chocolate also protects the cardiovascular system by reducing platelet aggregation (clumping together of platelets). Platelets are tiny blood cells that help the body form clots. Platelets are wonderful when they form a clot, and a cut stops bleeding. But, they aren’t so great when they start clumping together and form a clot in an artery (blood vessel), which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Antiplatelet medications (blood thinners), like aspirin or Plavix, make the blood less sticky and prevent clots from forming in the arteries. Interestingly, research has shown aspirin-like effects just hours after drinking a cocoa powder beverage. Cocoa appears to have an antiplatelet aggregation effect. Pretty amazing! (3, 2, 4).
4) Blood sugar support
Who would have thought that chocolate could support blood sugar (glucose)? Dark chocolate has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance. This means blood sugar (glucose) can get into the cells more quickly, so blood sugar levels will decrease (2).
One study found improvements in insulin resistance and sensitivity after participants ate dark chocolate bars (100 grams) for 15 days. The researchers did not see this effect in participants eating 90-gram white chocolate bars (1).
5) Brain benefits
Studies show improved blood flow and cognition in people consuming cocoa flavanols. One study found participants consuming a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage had improved cognition and mood. This benefit coincided with an increase in blood flow. The cognitive effects were seen 90 minutes after volunteers drank the flavanol-rich cocoa beverage and peaked in 2 hours (5).
How chocolate improves brain health is not entirely understood. Most likely, cocoa high in flavanols supports brain function by increasing nitric oxide, improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure, improving insulin sensitivity, reducing platelet aggregation, and improving how the arteries function.
Additionally, antioxidant activity reduced oxidative stress and reduced inflammation supporting brain health. Other ingredients, in addition to the flavanols (e.g., caffeine, theobromine, magnesium), may also produce the cognitive effects of chocolate (5).
6) Mood boost
Does chocolate make you smile? For many people, chocolate is a go-to mood enhancer. Part of this is due to sugar, of course. The sweet taste quickly activates the brain’s pleasure center. Pleasure chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins release when we eat chocolate. We may even start releasing dopamine with just the thought of chocolate (6, 7, 5). Mood effects of sugar-filled chocolate can be quick. When blood sugar drops, mood can drop with it. Also, when chocolate is overeaten, guilt often sets in too.
If you want a longer-lasting mood boost, stick with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate stands out for its mood-enhancing effect because of its unique ingredient makeup. One study found US adults that ate dark chocolate were less likely to report depression, which wasn’t seen in people eating non-dark chocolate. Another study found that people who ate dark chocolate had a 70% lower chance of reporting depression symptoms (7).
Dark chocolate contains psychoactive ingredients include caffeine, theobromine, anandamide, phenylethylamine (PEA), and flavanols.
- Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that improves alertness and reduces fatigue. In a 3.5 oz dark chocolate bar, you may get the equivalent amount of caffeine in cola.
- Theobromine can lead to effects similar to caffeine.
- Anandamide leads to feelings of euphoria and happiness.
- PEA is thought to be important in regulating mood.
Researchers aren’t sure if these psychoactive ingredients are high enough to create a mood-altering effect. However, the flavanols may have a longer-lasting effect on mood. It is well-known that flavanols reduce inflammation, and inflammation is associated with depression and anxiety (7).
Is chocolate an aphrodisiac?
Some people believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, science hasn’t found this to be true. A couple of chemicals in chocolate have been linked to the so-called aphrodisiac effects – tryptophan and phenylethylamine (PEA).
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is used to build the pleasure chemical serotonin. PEA is produced in the brain when someone is in love. Unfortunately, levels of tryptophan and PEA do not appear to increase significantly from eating chocolate.
Amount needed to reap the benefits?
Sadly, research doesn’t show the same health benefits from milk chocolate or white chocolate. Their polyphenol levels are just too low. And, they are loaded with sugar! Stick with cocoa powder or dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa if you want to support your health. These products are the richest in polyphenols (flavanols).
Many studies have used a daily consumption of 100g (3.5 oz) of dark chocolate. This is a lot of chocolate that is not calorie-free. For example, a 3.5 oz Ghirardelli 72% Cacao Twilight Delight bar has a whopping 520 calories (8).
Thankfully, some studies have found health benefits with smaller amounts of dark chocolate. Research has shown increased antioxidant status, improved vasodilation, improved blood flow, and blood-thinning effects with 40 grams of dark chocolate (~1.5 oz, ~240 calories, four 2-inch squares), and improvements in cholesterol have been seen with just 22 grams of cocoa powder (¼ cup, ~50 calories).
Consuming smaller amounts of cocoa-rich dark chocolate and using cocoa powder, you can reduce calories and reap health benefits.
Healthy ways to incorporate chocolate
- Dark chocolate covered strawberries (or blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- Dark chocolate covered cherries
- Dark chocolate covered almonds
- Dark chocolate bar with 70% or more cocoa
- Hot chocolate made with cocoa powder
- Dark chocolate mocha with cocoa powder
- Chocolate smoothie made with cocoa powder
- Chocolate pudding made with cocoa powder
- Dark chocolate peanut butter cup
- Dark chocolate chip cookies with 70% cocoa chips
Be aware that harsh processing of the cocoa bean can destroy the polyphenols. For example, Dutch processing or Dutching can significantly reduce flavanol content (9, 10, 2).
Are there any cons?
Unfortunately, there are a few cons.
- Calories. As mentioned, chocolate products are often rich in calories, sugar, and fat. Although dark chocolate products are often lower in sugar, they still provide a hefty dose of calories and fat. Read your food label and eat in moderation.
- Caffeine. Caffeine occurs naturally in the cocoa bean; therefore, chocolate products typically contain some caffeine. The amount varies but is typically higher in dark chocolate. Hot cocoa mix can deliver 9 milligrams, a Milky Way Midnight contains 14 grams, while a Hershey’s Special Dark bar provides 31 milligrams. If you are looking for an energy boost, this is great, but if you are sensitive to caffeine or have sleeping problems, keep this in mind (11).
- Reflux. Chocolate may trigger acid reflux in some people. If you have mild reflux, you might experiment a bit. Eat a small amount and record your symptoms. Test this a few times and try your best to keep things as similar as possible. Note other factors that have been associated with reflux – stress, smoking, alcohol, citrus fruits, tomatoes, coffee, and onions. If your symptoms get worse, try a smaller amount and test again.
- Heavy Metals. The heavy metal cadmium has been found in trace amounts in chocolate (12). Products with more than 4.1 micrograms of cadmium per daily serving have a warning label in California. The World Health Organization recommends 0.3 micrograms per gram in dried plants as a maximum. You don’t need to avoid cocoa or chocolate, but be mindful of this and eat chocolate or cocoa powder in moderation, especially for children. Consider pairing other foods rich in polyphenols (berries, cherries, wine) with a smaller amount of chocolate (13).
Take home message
Adding dark chocolate to your diet is a delicious way to incorporate health-protecting flavanols. Dark chocolate rich in cocoa-flavanols has been shown to improve lipids, improve blood flow, reduce platelet aggregation, decrease blood pressure, improve blood sugar regulation, improve cognition, and enhance mood. But remember, moderation is key!
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