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Chocolate and Health

Article covers health benefits of chocolate/cocoa for heart, stress, antioxidants. (choclate)

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Chocolate and Health — Is It Good for You or Bad For You?

picture of hand holding a piece of dark chocolate Going into cocoa-overload with a serving of the famous dessert "Death By Chocolate" is probably not the way to find out if chocolate is good for you. In this article, we will explore the health benefits of chocolate and provide some serving suggestions to ensure that the phrase "chocolate and health" is something other than a dietary oxymoron for you.

First, let's start off with some of the health-giving attributes of chocolate:

  • It's rich in certain essential minerals, and it's packed with bioflavonoids, especially flavonols.
  • Chocolate is thought to improve blood flow and elasticity in blood vessels; lower blood pressure; improve overall heart health; and reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
  • It can decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as the body's inflammatory immune responses.
  • Chocolate is thought to improve insulin resistance and sensitivity.
  • It can increase alertness, lessen pain and promote a general feeling of well-being.
  • Chocolate may reduce the risk of cancer.

Before you go running with glee through the candy aisle, let's go into those characteristics in a little more detail. We'll also explore the potential health downsides of chocolate. (Sorry!)


Chocolate's Vitamins and Essential Minerals

Chocolate is a good source of magnesium, copper, and iron; with lesser amounts of calcium, zinc, Vitamin A, niacin, and phosphorus.

Here's why those first three are important:

  • Magnesium is critical to a large number of body functions, including the formation and maintenance of strong bones, muscle and nerve function, and regular bowel function.
  • Iron is an important part of hemoglobin and thus is essential to oxygen transport in the body. Iron also assists short-term storage of oxygen in muscle tissue, including the muscle tissues in the heart.
  • Copper is an important antioxidant and is critical to the body's detoxification mechanism. It's also important to the formation of red blood cells.


Chocolate and Stress Reduction

Chocolate's beneficial levels of magnesium—56 mg in a 50g (~2oz) bar of dark chocolate—may help to explain some of chocolate's sedative effect on stressed-out people. Stress causes the body to deplete its supplies of magnesium, ultimately leading to an out-of-balance biochemistry. It may be that the magnesium in chocolate helps restore the body's magnesium balance.

Chocolate also has a more direct stress-reducing effect. It contains a compound called anandamide—also known as the "bliss chemical"—that binds to certain receptors in the brain to promote relaxation. This happens in a manner similar to the effect of some components of marijuana—though the effect is much more subtle (and much more legal!). Further, chocolate contains enzyme inhibitors that decrease the body's ability to metabolize anandamide, thus "prolonging the high."


Chocolate—and other enjoyable foods—are known to trigger feel-good endorphins in our brains. That effect appears to be at least partly related to our enjoyment of the food (rather than just a reaction to the components of the food), so it makes sense that when eating chocolate, we should sit back and savor the experience. That is to say, don't mindlessly spoon through that pint of Double-Fudge Chocolate Grand Slam. Sit back and enjoy it like a proper chocoholic!

Another mood-altering compound found in chocolate is phenylethylamine, a chemical supposedly released by the brain when we are in love. (Love me, love my chocolate?) Many researchers, however, discount this as a mood-altering factor, noting that phenylethylamine levels are higher in cheese and sausage—which are not associated with stress reduction—and that the phenylethylamine in chocolate is too rapidly metabolized by the body to have the purported effect.

The high fat content of chocolate candy does trigger the brain's production of natural opiates. Similarly, the sensory pleasures—taste, smell, mouth feel—associated with chocolate can undoubtedly have a calming effect on the eater.


Chocolate and Antioxidants

Antioxidants are important soldiers in the war our body constantly wages against free radicals, which can cause all sorts of cellular damage. More generally, antioxidants are essential to how the body detoxifies itself.

Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants called bioflavonoids—containing more of them than any other food tested so far, including blueberries, red wine and green tea. (See table below.)

Table 1.
Top 10 Antioxidant Foods According to USDA Research

  Dark Chocolate 13,120  
  Prunes 5,770  
  Raisins 2,830  
  Blueberries 2,400  
  Blackberries 2,036  
  Kale 1,770  
  Strawberries 1,540  
  Spinach 1,260  
  Raspberries 1,220  
  Brussels Sprouts 980  

Milk chocolate actually makes this list as well, scoring slightly higher than prunes, but we have chosen to let dark chocolate represent the cocoa contingent alone. Milk chocolate has some characteristics that make it inferior to dark chocolate from a health perspective. More on that later.

Animal studies have found the antioxidants in these and similar foods to:

  • reduce loss of long-term memory and learning ability;
  • maintain the ability of brain cells to respond to a chemical stimulus—a function that normally decreases with age; and
  • protect capillaries against oxidative damage.

While dark chocolate is clearly a superstar when it comes to antioxidants, experts recommend that you get your antioxidants from a variety of sources, not just chocolate. Different phytochemicals are present in different amounts in various foods, and getting a nice mix of these nutrients from a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is the best way to give your body the ammo it needs to keep disease at bay. (Related GP article: Rainbow Diet.)


Chocolate and Heart Health

Little did we know, those bumper stickers that say "Ichocolate" had it right all along—chocolate appears to be good for your heart. Research is ongoing, but two primary reasons have emerged as to why chocolate is good for coronary health:

  • cocoa appears to help the body modulate nitric oxide, a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure; and
  • the flavonols in cocoa reduce the chance of blood clots and prevent fatty substances in the bloodstream from clogging arteries.

Unfortunately, chocolate does contain saturated fat, and saturated fat is normally a bad thing when it comes to cardiovascular health. Some research indicates, though, that the fat in chocolate is not a problem because it contains stearic acid, which is "cholesterol-neutral." That is to say, the body still processes the fat as fat, just not as bad fat. It might increase your waistline—and being overweight is definitely not a heart-healthy thing—but chocolate fat won't contribute to your level of bad cholesterol.

Before we start celebrating chocolate's "neutral fat" characteristics, we must mention that one large study came to the unfortunate conclusion that too much chocolate fat is indeed a problem for heart health. In the Nurses' Health Study, which looked at more than 80,000 women over 14 years, the saturated fat in chocolate was shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease by as much or even more than other saturated fats.

So, if you are predisposed to cardiovascular problems, it is probably wise not to overdo the chocolate bars. Fear not, though, we have a suggestion later in the article about how you can get the benefits of flavonol-rich cocoa with the overload of chocolate fat.


The Dark Side of Chocolate

For the average person, there are two potential downsides to chocolate: fat and sugar. We already discussed the fat issue in the previous section, so let's move on to sugar.


Every year, US manufacturers of chocolate products use 2.4 billion pounds of sugar and 1.4 billion pounds of corn-syrup sweeteners.

Delectable though it is, sugar brings a long list of woes to the body. For those interested in a more extensive list, we recommend checking out this video at

Over-consumption of sugar is one of the main reasons Western countries—and particularly the US—have high incidences of adult-onset diabetes, obesity (juvenile and adult), and hyperactivity in children. Sugar can also:

  • suppress your immune system and impair your defenses against infectious disease;
  • cause or aggravate autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, asthma, multiple sclerosis;
  • feed the growth of cancer cells.

Because sugar weakens the immune system, advises that people only eat chocolate if they're healthy, and even then only dark chocolate and in moderation.

The sugar in chocolate is no worse than the sugar in other foods. In fact, it may be a little better than average—the glycemic index of chocolate is a relatively low 45. Nonetheless, sugar is an overall negative, and this presents us with a dilemma when it comes to getting the health benefits of chocolate without suffering the negative effects of sugar. Two points:

  • Many of the studies that showed a positive benefit of eating chocolate gave study participants only a small amount of chocolate—no more than a few ounces a day. You don't need to eat gobs of the stuff to get a positive benefit, and given the sugar issue (and less-clear saturated-fat problem), you should resist the thought that "if a little chocolate is good, more chocolate is better."
  • A USDA study found that among all chocolate products, standard cocoa powders has the greatest concentrations of antioxidants and flavonols. Baking chocolate was a close second.

Item 2 actually makes sense. Cocoa powder is what's known in the business as the "chocolate solids," with the chocolate fat—cocoa butter—separated out. Thus, cocoa powder is the purest concentration of the part of chocolate that has all the good stuff, health-wise. Unsweetened baking chocolate has the next highest concentration of chocolate solids, though we admit that we envision that few people would be willing to gnaw on a chunk of unsweetened baker's chocolate. Cocoa powder, however, is a more flexible way to get your cocoa solids, as we will discuss in the next section.

One final caution about eating chocolate: Even if you are ingesting chocolate solids in a form untainted by cocoa butter or sugar, the long-term effects of high cocoa consumption or higher-than-normal intake of flavonols remain to be studied. So, don't overdo it—stick with the recommendations we offer in the "How Much?" section below (or consult with a professional nutritionist).


Different Chocolates, Different Health Benefits

Compared to cocoa powder, milk chocolate—the most popular chocolate among US consumers—contains about a tenth of the beneficial flavonols. Milk chocolate's performance also suffers from the fact that it contains milk, which binds with the antioxidants and reduces their positive impact.

Dark chocolate—which has a higher concentration of cocoa solids than milk chocolate—gets better antioxidant scores than milk chocolate but still not as good as baking chocolate and cocoa powder. Chocolate products that use cocoa powder prepared using the "Dutch process," which uses alkali, should be avoided—the alkali destroys most of the beneficial flavonols. You can also forget about white chocolate completely—it has no chocolate solids.

So, that leaves us with the following general rules for choosing chocolate for maximum health benefit:

  • The darker the better.
  • The higher the cocoa content the better.
  • The less fat the better.
  • The less sugar the better.
  • Non-alkali processing is a must.

We'll also add to that list "organic" so that you also avoid any residual pesticides in your chocolate. (See Chocolate and Pesticides for more info.)

What product best fits this bill? As we've implied up to this point, it's straight cocoa powder. Not very exciting. But before you dismiss the idea of drinking an unsweetened cocoa beverage, let us briefly tell you of the Kuna Indians of Panama. These native peoples have very low levels of age-related hypertension, despite salt intake levels similar to less-heart-healthy Westerners. The Kuna's secret is thought to be that they drink unprocessed cocoa. Compounds in the cocoa help regulate the nitric oxide in their blood, which is good for blood vessel relaxation.


Some of the health benefits of chocolate have been observed in studies using off-the-shelf chocolate products, while other studies have used specially derived "lab chocolate"—picked and processed to ensure high levels of viable flavonol compounds.

The concentration of the flavonols in any chocolate product depends on:
-- the flavonol content of the cocoa plant it is derived from;
-- the procedures used to transform the cocoa beans into chocolate products.

The flavonols can be destroyed at many points on the path from the cocoa plantation to the manufacturing plant to the supermarket shelf and your mouth.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could just look at the label on the chocolate product and see a number for "viable flavonol content" per serving? Well, good news everyone! Manufacturers have recognized chocolate's health benefits as an important sales angle and are working to develop products with maximized and standardized amounts of antioxidants. The labels on some candy bars now give the percentage of cocoa solids. This is a good start, but the ultimate goal should be for the label to list not only the percentage of cocoa solids but, more importantly, the level of viable flavonols. And the word "organic"!


Getting Your Daily Dose of Chocolate

OK, back to how might you drink hot cocoa made with unsweetened, organic, non-alkali cocoa powder—without gagging. If you drink black coffee or unsweetened hot tea, a mug of hot, unsweetened cocoa might not be too much of a challenge for you, and you might even find you enjoy it. (The GP founder has been doing so for years.) But if you're used to making everything you drink taste like a milkshake, well, tsk-tsk-tsk.

Regardless, for those of you who would like to try enjoying a cup of hot, unsweetened cocoa every morning, here are some tips.

Choice of Cocoa Powder

picture of farmer with cocao pod Buy only high-quality, organic, non-alkali, unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably raw. The best stuff has beans only, no pods.

Remember, you're not looking for powdered hot chocolate mixes -- they contain added sugar (and usually a few other things too).

How To Prepare It

To prepare the cocoa, heat the water on your stove. Wait until the water just begins to boil in the pan, then spoon in the cocoa—one rounded teaspoon per 8 oz. water. Stir until the cocoa powder completely dissolves, let it all boil gently for 20 seconds, then remove from heat. Let it sit for a minute, stir a couple of times, then pour the chocolaty goodness into your mug and enjoy!

The amount of cocoa used does make a difference in the taste—too little and the beverage tastes washed out; too much and it's overpowering. So, adjust the amount of cocoa powder you use to suit your taste buds. For an interesting twist, try adding a little bit of fresh grated ginger as part of the brewing process.

Jamocha / Choffee

Here's an option for the hot-cocoa-in-a-cup method: once you've made your hot cocoa, add hot black coffee to it to make a yummy coffee-cocoa combination. We find that about half chocolate/half coffee works well, but again, adjust to taste. And remember that you've just cut down on the amount of cocoa you're getting per cup. The good news is that coffee has its own arsenal of helpful antioxidants.

Baking Beyond The Pleasuredome

Of course, you can always use cocoa powder in brownies or chocolate cakes, but remember the sugar issue. We suspect you're not going to eat unsweetened brownies, but that's always an option. (And no, we don't recommend using non-caloric artificial sweeteners!)

It's also possible to use cocoa powder in recipes for bread, other non-dessert baked goods and recipes—even squash! We have no first-hand knowledge in this area, though we know recipes are out there. However, we think it's unlikely that one could get therapeutic amounts of cocoa this way. But if you've tried it or have other ideas for how to use unsweetened cocoa powder to good effect, please

I Want Candy

If you just can't make the cocoa powder approach work for you, then we have to admit that an a few ounces organic dark chocolate every day isn't likely to do most people harm. Look for products that have the highest content of chocolate solids, with low sugar and fat content.

How Much?

Studies so far have used varying amounts and varying types of chocolate, so there's no easy answer to how much chocolate you should consume. We offer the following suggestions as unscientific, non-medical recommendations based on the materials we reviewed:

  • If using pure cocoa powder: two rounded teaspoons per day.
  • If eating dark chocolate bars: two ounces per day.



There are a number of chocolate factors we didn't have time to get into in this article, including:

  • chocolate and caffeine
  • chocolate "addictions"
  • chocolate allergy
  • chocolate and headaches/migraines
  • chocolate and acne
  • chocolate and periods
  • chocolate and slavery

Are these relationships myths or facts? We'll address these topics and more in Part 3 of this series, to be published in a future issue of Grinning Planet.

Know someone who might find this article about Chocolate and Health interesting? Please forward it to them.

Publish date: 13-FEB-2007


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  1 - Chocolate and Pesticides

  2 - Chocolate and Health

  3 - Chocolate Myths and Facts

  4 - Best Chocolate

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Articles 3 and 4 will be published in future issues of Grinning Planet. Why not  sign up  for the free GP email service so you don't miss it.

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Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate

The Essence of Chocolate features more than 100 spectacular—and often simple—recipes drawn from top pastry chefs. Arranged by chocolate intensity, the book is filled with helpful tips, sumptuous photographs, and the story of how chocolate is really made. Top picks include That Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Pudding Cakes, Chocolate-Chocolate Cupcakes, and Chocolate Mousse. Yum!

  book cover for Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, by Mort Rosenblum, 2/15/2005

It turns out that science says chocolate is actually good for you—it's packed with antioxidants and triggers important brain chemicals. Delve into the complex world of chocolate—from the chocolates of ancient Mexico to those of contemporary France to the dark side of the chocolate trade to the factories of Hershey and Godiva. This book melts in your mind, not in your hand! (by Mort Rosenblum)

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Confections and Treats to Create and Savor

In Chocolate Obsession, Michael Recchiuti, owner of a famous artisanal chocolate company in San Francisco, divulges his professional secrets and techniques, allowing home cooks to reproduce his exquisite confections in their own kitchens. The book includes a discussion of chocolate, from bean to bar; detailed instructions for delights like dipped chocolates, truffles, and molded chocolates; with over 60 recipes in all.


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"Personally, I would drink hot cocoa in the morning, green tea in the afternoon, and a glass of red wine in the evening. That's a good combination."

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