Cacao is one of the strongest antioxidants we know of. Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols, catechins, among others. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate contained more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than other fruits they tested, which included blueberries and Acai berries.
At this point, I should point out the difference between cacao and cocoa. The studies that boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits are not referring to your average store-bought chocolate bar (darned misleading researchers). The chocolate that they’re referring to is raw cacao. Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing un-roasted cacao beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cacao and removes the fat (cacao butter). Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cacao bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.
The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce Nitric Oxide (NO), which is a gas. One of the functions of nitric oxide is to send signals to the arteries to relax, which lowers resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure (wait, isn’t that what Viagra is supposed to do?).
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease. In a controlled trial, cocoa powder was found to significantly decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol in men. It also increased HDL and lowered total LDL in men with elevated cholesterol. Oxidized LDL means that the LDL (“bad” cholesterol) has reacted with free radicals. This makes the LDL particle itself reactive and capable of damaging other tissues… such as the lining of the arteries in your heart. It makes perfect sense that cocoa lowers oxidized LDL. It contains an abundance of powerful antioxidants that do make it into the bloodstream and protect lipoproteins against oxidative damage.
Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes. In the long term, this should cause much less cholesterol to lodge in the arteries and we should see a lower risk of heart disease. However, given that we have a biological mechanism (lower blood pressure and oxidized LDL) then I find it plausible that regular consumption of dark chocolate can in fact reduce the risk of heart disease. Yea!
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin. The flavonols can protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration. The minimal erythemal dose (MED) is the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin, 24 hours after exposure. In one study of 30 people, the MED more than doubled after consuming dark chocolate high in flavanols for 12 weeks. So, if you’re planning on a beach vacation, consider loading up on dark chocolate in the prior weeks and months. Vacation AND chocolate? Sign me up!
The good news isn’t over yet.
Dark chocolate may also improve the function of the brain. One study of healthy volunteers showed that 5 days of consuming high-flavanol cocoa improved blood flow to the brain. Cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment. It also improves verbal fluency and several risk factors for disease. Cocoa also contains stimulant substances like caffeine and theobromine, which may be a key reason cocoa can improve brain function in the short term.
Dark chocolate also contains several chemical compounds that have a positive effect on your mood and cognitive health. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical your brain creates when you
feel like you're falling in love. PEA encourages your brain to release endorphins, so eating dark chocolate will make you feel happier. And we are back to Valentine’s day and the season for love….. think it’s an accident we are encouraged to give chocolates when celebrating affairs of the heart?
Of course, this doesn't mean you should go all out and consume lots of chocolate every day. It is still loaded with calories and easy to overeat on. Maybe have a square or two after dinner and try to really savor them by nibbling off a bit and allowing it to dissolve, coating your taste buds.
Be aware that a lot of the chocolate on the market is junk, loaded with sugar. You need to choose quality stuff… organic, dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content. Dark chocolates often contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.
There are of course other benefits to chocolate that I have not mentioned… such as the awesome taste.