There is growing scientific evidence that antioxidants and other beneficial substances in dark chocolate may reduce risk factors for heart disease and other physical conditions.
In the study, scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for two weeks.
In addition, a new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compared the detailed cocoa antioxidant contents of commercially available chocolate and cocoa-containing products sold in the United States.
The top-selling three or four brands of natural cocoa powder, unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate chips, milk chocolate, and chocolate syrup were purchased across the United States for the study. Each product was tested for antioxidant activity, total polyphenols, and individual flavanol monomers and oligomers.
These results were compared to the amount of nonfat cocoa solids and total polyphenols in each product, as well as to the calculated percent cacao.
The products with the highest level of flavanol antioxidants were cocoa powders, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semi-sweet chips, then milk chocolate and finally chocolate syrup.
Cocoa residue has been used for some time and has even been found in 2,600-year-old Mayan ceramic vessels in northern Belize. This pushes the start of mankind’s chocolate addiction back by 1,000 years. Prior to that discovery, the earliest signs of cocoa use dated back to 400 A.D.
However, it’s important to realize the differences between the various types of chocolate products available today.
For example, there’s a huge difference between the minimally processed dark chocolate and the milk chocolate found in most candy bars.
Likewise, raw, unsweetened cocoa powder, which is high in antioxidant flavonols, is vastly different from the common commercial cocoa drinks that are loaded with sugar and low in antioxidant content.
Dark Chocolate May Ease Anxiety
Dark chocolate has previously been linked to a number of health benefits, and according to this latest study, it may even help people suffering from high levels of anxiety to reduce their stress responses.
(It’s worth noting that the study was conducted by a Nestle research group, so there’s potential for bias, but since there’s plenty of other research to back up the benefits of cocoa, their findings are interesting nonetheless.)
The researchers found that eating 40 grams of dark chocolate (Nestle brand Noir Intense, consisting of 74 percent cocoa solids) every day for two weeks affected the way stress hormones were metabolized.
In the high anxiety group, eating this amount of dark chocolate significantly reduced stress hormone levels, and the participants in this group also reported feeling less anxious after eating chocolate.
These findings did not apply to participants in the low anxiety group.
They explain the results by showing that people with higher levels of anxiety also have a distinctly different metabolic profile.
Dark chocolate reduced the urinary excretion of the stress hormone cortisol and catecholamines, and partially normalized stress-related differences in energy metabolism and gut microbial activities.
This all sounds well and good, however I’d be leery of consuming as much as 40 grams of chocolate each and every day.
How Much Chocolate is “Enough”?
I say that for a couple of reasons. First, dark chocolate, although lower in sugar than milk chocolate, still contains sugar and can raise your insulin levels. And, as you may know by now, high insulin levels are perhaps the number one cause of disease in general.
In addition, a study published last year found that just 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day -- a bit less than half a bar a week -- represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Any more than that started to cancel out the benefits.
Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases ranging from myocardial infarction to stroke.
The study found that those who ate dark chocolate regularly had an average of 17 percent reduction in C-reactive protein -- enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by one-third in women and one-fourth in men.
Granted, it may be that more chocolate is required to achieve the anti-anxiety effect discovered above. However, they didn’t check to see if a lesser amount might have done the trick as well, so we just don’t know, do we?
Personally, I’d advise against eating half a bar of chocolate a day. To me it seems excessive, and may end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
Not All Chocolate is Created Equal
The health benefits from chocolate are mainly due to the antioxidants present in the cocoa, such as flavonols.
Flavonols are a subclass of flavonoids, which are natural chemicals found in plants, fruits and vegetables.
Flavonoids, in turn, are the largest group of several thousand compounds belonging to the antioxidant-rich polyphenol family (also called phytochemicals). While all flavonoids are antioxidants, some have stronger antioxidant properties than others, depending on their chemical structure.
The total antioxidant content of chocolate products are directly associated with the amount of raw cocoa it contains.
It’s no surprise then that cocoa powder ranks number one when it comes to health benefits, as it contains the highest level of flavanol antioxidants.
According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry a couple of months ago, in terms of healthy antioxidant content, cocoa powder is followed by:
- Unsweetened baking chocolate
- Dark chocolate
- Semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Milk chocolate
If you’re still tempted to grab milk chocolate, simply because it’s on the list, don’t.
Processing has a lot to do with whether the chocolate in question has any benefits, and milk chocolate rates very poorly in this regard as it is heavily processed. The typical commercial chocolate has less than half of its flavonoids remaining after processing.
In addition, milk chocolate contains milk, which cancels out chocolate’s antioxidant effects, according to a study published in the journal Nature. Proteins in the milk bind with the antioxidants, making them less easily absorbed by your body.
Another concern about processed chocolate is lead content. Researchers have found that commercial chocolate can be contaminated with extremely high quantities of lead. It is currently unknown if this contamination is coming from the shipping or the manufacturing process. Whatever the cause might be, your best bet is to stick with dark, organic, unprocessed chocolate to minimize contamination risk.
The closer the chocolate is to its original raw state, the better it is for you.
The Health Benefits of Pure Cocoa
Quite a few studies have confirmed the potent antioxidant properties and subsequent health benefits of raw cocoa powder.
For example, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a cup of hot cocoa (using pure cocoa powder) had close to double the amount of antioxidants than a glass of red wine, more than double the amount of green tea, and four to five times more than black tea!
Likewise, dark unprocessed chocolate has been exonerated in several studies as actually having some positive impact on your health, such as improving your:
- Glucose metabolism (diabetic control)
- Blood pressure
- Cardiovascular system
Still, the take-home message of many of these studies is not that you should guzzle cocoa or over-indulge in chocolate, even if it’s dark, but rather, they show that dietary flavonols hold promise as a way to prevent heart disease and normalize glucose metabolism.
There are many other dietary sources of flavonols in addition to cocoa – sources that are part of a healthy, mostly raw, low-sugar diet.
Other Sources of Heart-Healthy Flavonols
It is important to realize that raw unprocessed cacao, from which chocolate is made, and which is loaded with all these beneficial antioxidants, is actually very bitter. For this reason, well over 95 percent of people don’t enjoy it.
Our team recently put together one of the healthiest chocolate treats on the market so if you are looking for a healthy chocolate snack please, be sure and look at our new organic, dark chocolate bar.
If you do not enjoy chocolate, or want to avoid all sugar, then you can still enjoy the benefits that cocoa and chocolate provides (via flavonols) by consuming fruits and vegetables.
Red grapes, apples and tangerines are high in antioxidants, as are most all vegetables, such as spinach, kale and broccoli.
However, as I described in my previous article, Fruit Can Keep Your Arteries Squeaky Clean, you need to be aware of certain precautions when it comes to eating fruits, and you may need to restrict your fruit intake, especially if you have diabetes.
Blueberries are the top-rated food by the USDA as far as antioxidant capacity is concerned, and they’re also a safer option if you’re diabetic, as they’re low in sugar. They also contain other chemicals like anthocyanins that are even more powerful than flavonols when it comes to protecting against free-radical damage.