The Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Date: 30-03-2021

The Benefits of Dark Chocolate

By Professor Avni Sali

There are many valid excuses to eat Dark Chocolate daily, preferably with high cocoa content.

Humanity’s love affair with chocolate goes back millennia.  From the origins of cocao native to Central and South American regions, it was considered ‘the food of gods’. The Aztecs in Mexico are credited with first producing chocolate.  Later to be introduced by the Spaniards to the European elite, it was sweetened to become an exclusive treat.  Its popularity has endured worldwide to captivate children, adults, cooks, writers, creators and consumers, all agreeing on the pleasures of chocolate!

Mass produced milk chocolate has approximately 20% cocoa, 40% sugar and 25% milk solids, plus water.  White chocolate has very little cocoa content and is sugary with no health benefits.  Dark Chocolate is now widely available ranging in strength from 70% – 100% cocoa content.

The health benefits in this article relate to Dark Chocolate (80%+) as opposed to Milk Chocolate.

Perhaps driven by our love of chocolate, cocoa, which is actually the health promoting component found in good quality chocolate, has been the subject of a vast amount of research over the past decade. Dr Karin Ried, Director of Research at the National Institute of Integrative Medicine Melbourne, has explored the effects chocolate can have on blood pressure and concluded dark chocolate ‘can significantly, but modestly, reduce blood pressure for people with high blood pressure’. High cocoa chocolate contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals called polyphenols, which also help keep blood vessels dilated, and improve blood flow. This in turn reduces blood pressure.1

The great news is that dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively benefit your health.  In addition to being high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, cocoa contains many chemicals that help support optimal health and wellbeing.2   It is an excellent source of potassium, phosphorus, zinc, chromium and copper.  It also has one of the highest levels of magnesium as well as containing manganese.  Dark Chocolate is generally low in sodium. 

Beyond its reputation for its delicious taste and its mood-enhancing qualities, dark chocolate has a role to play in a healthy balanced diet.  It contains many beneficial nutritional properties that can enhance your overall health.

Here are just some of the positive health effects on our bodies:

STRESS & MOOD

Dark Chocolate has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.  Levels of euphoria can be reached primarily due to a phytochemical called Phenylethylamine (PEA), which is an endorphin.  PEA is produced normally by the brain.  If we do not have enough PEA in the brain, mood swings and depression can result.3

I actually rate Dark Chocolate as the number one food!

It assists in increasing our feel good serotonin levels and releasing anandamide the ‘bliss molecule’.  It is possible that dark chocolate may be the ultimate antidepressant.  Even just the smell of chocolate is also thought to lead to the release of endorphins in the brain. 

Chocolate can assist with stress as it contains the substances valeric acid and tryptophan, which act as relaxants and tranquillisers.4  It also assists with stress by helping to reduce cortisol levels.

BRAIN

Dark chocolate can also assist with brain health. Dark chocolate predominantly comprises of a group of plant based nutrients referred to as flavanols. A UK Study found that flavanols in dark chocolate could help to sharpen up the mind and give a short-term boost to cognitive skills and general alertness. A number of mechanisms have been proposed for these effects on cognition which include improved vascular function, increasing blood flow to key areas of the brain, inflammatory reduction and the upregulation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin.5,6   Our study at NIIM found that a single dose of 500mg of cocoa flavanols improved performance on tasks requiring visual perception and decision time, alongside self-reported positive mood and alertness in comparison to a placebo. (Study publication in preparation)

ANTI INFLAMMATORY

Chronic inflammation can damage cells and tissues leading to an increased risk of chronic health conditions.

Dark chocolate contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce inflammation in the body.  Inflammation and lower insulin resistance can be aided by the anthocyanins and flavones in dark chocolate.

In a 2018 study, researchers found daily consumption 30g of 84% dark chocolate, reduced inflammatory biomarkers in people with type 2 diabetes.7

GLYCAEMIC INDEX

Dark chocolate has around half the glycaemic index (GI) of milk chocolate.  Foods with low GI enable the body to use up energy rather than storing it as excess fat.  High GI foods are linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Chocolate contains the second highest content of chromium in our diets.  Chromium is essential for normal glucose metabolism.  The higher amounts of magnesium and zinc in chocolate are also likely to offer protection from diabetes. 

DIABETES

When the body’s cells stop responding to the hormone insulin, insulin-resistance occurs and can cause high levels of blood glucose, which can lead to prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The Polyphenols in dark chocolate may help with insulin sensitivity.  A 2018 study examined chocolate consumption and blood glucose levels. The research findings suggest that eating 48g of 70% dark chocolate each day may help lower fasting glucose levels and reduce insulin resistance.

Flavonoids, including anthocyanins found in foods such as berries, tea and dark chocolate, can offer protection from type 2 diabetes. In the study of almost 2000 people, researchers from the King’s College London found the consumption of high levels of flavones and anthocyanins was associated with lower insulin resistance, better blood glucose regulation and lowered inflammation.8

Dark chocolate helps to reduce blood stickiness, which is universal in diabetics. Blood stickiness increases major complications of diabetes, e.g. blindness, kidney failure and nerve damage.

CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH

The high flavonoids and magnesium in dark chocolate assist in maintaining a healthy heart. Cacao may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving glucose levels and lipid profiles. It can decrease platelet activation like low dose aspirin.  The reduction of ‘blood stickiness’ reduces risk of cardio-vascular and other chronic diseases.

A meta-analysis of eight studies looking at the link between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease, found that people who ate more dark chocolate per day had a lower risk of both heart disease and stroke.9

An Australian study concluded that older women who eat chocolate regularly are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.   Polyphenols which are antioxidant chemicals help keep blood vessels dilated, thereby reducing blood pressure and improving blood flow.10

CHOLESTEROL

Because dark chocolate contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat it raises our HDL, or good cholesterol.

GUT HEALTH

Dark Chocolate feeds beneficial gut microbes such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid, thereby producing anti-inflammatory compounds beneficial for cardiovascular and other health benefits.  Healthy gut is crucial for good overall health.11

CANCER

Chocolate contains the flavonoid epicatechin, which provides protection against cancer.  Another substance, fernlic acid, also has anti-cancer properties and is found in cocoa.  Also oleic fatty acid in particular, could be protective against breast cancer.  In vitro (laboratory), cocoa has been shown to suppress both breast and bowel cancers.

The cancer-chemo protective activity of catechins and procyanidins help remove toxins from the body, reduce inflammation, and suppress blood supply to tumours. Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for both cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer.12

PAIN

Dark Chocolate can aid as a painkiller due to it lowering inflammation, improved blood flow and mood lifting.

WEIGHT

A serving of 50gm of dark chocolate provides fewer calories than four small sweet biscuits but also makes you feel satiated.  It is better to substitute dark chocolate for most desserts. Cocoa is high in flavanols which can help fight weight gain and type-2 diabetes.

Dark chocolate works as a very powerful appetite suppressant.  A 2011 Study found that dark chocolate promoted satiety, lowers the desire to eat something sweet, and suppressed energy intake compared with milk chocolate.13

DENTAL

Cocoa contains natural chemicals such as polyphenols that inhibit the bacteria responsible for dental decay. 

SKIN

The links between acne and chocolate have not been backed by research, rather it is thought the sugar content in chocolate could be the culprit.  The vitamins A,C,E and Zinc in dark chocolate are beneficial for the skin.  One research study showed it to have positive impacts on facial wrinkles and skin elasticity.14,15

EXERCISE

Yes, dark chocolate is heart healthy, but it can also improve your exercise performance.  Researchers found that supplementing with dark chocolate reduced the oxygen cost of moderate intensity exercise.  They also found that it improved the time trials of the cyclists.16 

LONGEVITY

Resveratrol an important compound in dark chocolate, may not only protect your brain and nervous system, but actually prolong your life.17

In vitro (laboratory) cocoa has been shown to extend life of cells by up to 70%.18

Dark Chocolate is now widely available. Chose preferably 80%+, remembering higher cacao and lower sugar content.  Dark Chocolate cocao powder can be made into drinks.  Cocao Nibs are crushed cacao beans and have a bitter taste.  They can be roasted or unroasted.  Their concentration makes them high in nutrients but also in caffeine.  These can be added to smoothies, baking, yogurt etc.

Even one square of dark chocolate daily can be beneficial, but up to 50gm per day for adults can be consumed.

There is no excuse to not include this nutrient-packed food into your daily consumption.   So go ahead and not only enjoy the taste, but reap the enormous health benefits of this amazing superfood!

HAPPY EASTER!

 

References

  1. Ried K, et al. Effect of cocoa on blood pressure. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Lancet 1999; 354:488
  2. Won Lee K. et al, Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals and a Higher Antioxidant Capacity than Teas and Red Wine J Ag & Food Chem51 (25):7292–7295
  3. Sarah E. Jackson S.E. et al, Is there a relationship between chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression? A crosssectional survey of 13,626 US adults. J Depression & Anxiety, 2019
  4. Wirtz P. et al. Dark chocolate intake buffers stress reactivity in humans. JACC Journals. 2014;63(21):2297-2299
  5. Macdonald, I. Boosting Brain Power – With Chocolate. Am Assoc Adv Sci. 2007. Web. 05 May 2017.
  6. Berk L. et al.  Dark chocolate effects human gene expression: Cacao regulates cellular immune response, neural signaling, and sensory perception. April 2018 Faseb Journ.
  7. Jafarirad S, et al. Dark Chocolate Effect on Serum Adiponectin, Biochemical and Inflammatory Parameters in Diabetic Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Int J Prev Med. 2018; 9: 86.
  8. Jennings A, et al. Intakes of Anthocyanins and Flavones Are Associated with Biomarkers of Insulin Resistance and Inflammation in Women. Jour of Nut, Jan 2014
  9. Buitrago-Lopez A et al, Chocolate consumption and cardio-metabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. MJ 2011; 343:d4488)
  10. Lewis, J.R. et al, Habitual Chocolate Intake and Vascular Disease: A Prospective Study of Clinical Outcomes in Older Women, Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(20)
  11. American Chemical Society. Precise reason for health benefits of dark chocolate: Thank hungry gut microbes. ScienceDaily. March 2014.
  12. Maskarinec G. Cancer Protective Properties of Cocoa: A Review of the Epidemiologic Evidence. Nutr and Cancer 2009;61(5):573-579.
  13. L B Sørensen LB, et al. Eating dark and milk chocolate: a randomized crossover study of effects on appetite and energy intake. Nutrition and Diabetes (2011) 1, E21
  14. Williams S, et al. Eating chocolate can significantly protect the skin from UV light. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Volume 8 Issue 3, pages 169-173
  15. H-S. Yoon, et al.  Cocoa Flavanol Supplementation Influences Skin Conditions of Photo-Aged Women: A 24-Week Double-Blind, Randomized, Controlled Trial. The Jour of Nut, Vol146, 2016,
  16. Patel RK, et al. Dark chocolate supplementation reduces the oxygen cost of moderate intensity cycling. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Dec 15;12:47.
  17. Bahadorani S, et al. Cocoa confers life span extension in Drosophila melanogaster. Nutr Res. 2008 Jun;28(6):377-82
  18. Howitz, K. et al. Small molecule activators of sirtuins extend Saccharomyces cerevisiae lifespan. Nature 425, 191–196 (2003)

Further Suggested reading

Ashton J et al.  A chocolate a day keeps the doctor away.  Thorsons Australia 2001. 

Somer E.  Food and mood.  Lowl Books.  New York 1999.

Atrens D.  The power of pleasure.  DS Books, Sydney 2000.

Weil A et al.  From chocolate to morphine.   Houghton Mifflin Boston 1998.

Heinerman J.  Miracle healing foods.  Prentice Hall, London 1999.

Tannahill R.  Food in history.  Penguin, London 1988.