Dark chocolate has health benefits that are attributed to the nutrient-rich cocoa bean. The cacao tree produces cocoa beans in pod-like fruits that grow from the trunk and branches. As they ripen, they are collected; the beans are removed, fermented, dried and roasted to develop the chocolate flavor. Dark chocolate has more cocoa content and is richer in nutrients than milk chocolate.
The best dark chocolates for health will contain a higher percentage of cocoa solids. Cocoa solids are low in fat and rich in plant-based flavonols; the more cocoa solids in dark chocolate, the higher these nutrients. Flavonols are chemical compounds found in fruits and vegetables that act as antioxidants in your body. As cells in your body metabolize, free-radicals are produced, which can damage tissues and cause disease; antioxidants are the scavengers, neutralizing free-radicals. Antioxidants have anti-tumor, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. Milk chocolate contains low amounts of cocoa solids and therefore less flavonols. Dark chocolates vary by manufacturer, but usually contain 35 to 100 percent cocoa solids. In the United States, dark chocolate is also called sweet chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate.
Besides cocoa solids, dark chocolate contains cocoa butter, which is made up of two saturated fatty acids and one monounsaturated fatty acid. However, these fats do not appear to contribute to high cholesterol levels. According to the November 2004 issue of "Free Radical Biology and Medicine," participants who ate 75 grams of dark chocolate enriched with cocoa solids daily had improved cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is measured by assessing two lipoproteins; the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) should be lower, and the high-density (HDL) lipoprotein should be higher for a better score. In this study, "bad" LDL cholesterol levels decreased 11.9 percent and "good" HDL cholesterol levels increased 11.4 percent. The November 2001 issue of "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" also reported that a daily intake of 16 grams of dark chocolate was effective in lowering "bad" cholesterol and increasing "good" cholesterol. A 1.45-ounce dark chocolate bar is equal to 41 grams.
Dark chocolate may also be beneficial in lowering blood pressure, when eaten in small amounts. According to the July 2007 "Journal of the American Medical Association," eating 6.3 grams of dark chocolate resulted in lower blood pressure without adversely affecting weight gain or blood lipid levels. Another study published in the July 2010 "European Heart Journal" found that eating 6 grams of dark chocolate per day was associated with a 39 percent lower risk of heart attack and stroke.
Dark chocolate is available with varying amounts of cocoa solids; read the labels to get an accurate content. While eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily has health benefits, too much chocolate will increase calories and fat. Choose dark chocolates with at least 35 percent cocoa solids, which meets the minimum requirements for dark chocolate in Europe. The United States requires sweet chocolate to have not less than 15 percent chocolate liquor and semi-sweet chocolate is required to have 35 percent chocolate liquor. There are no U.S. Federal rules for total cocoa solids. Chocolate liquor is an equal combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
- The Journal of the American Medical Association: Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide
- Free Radical Biology and Medicine: Dark Chocolate Consumption Increases HDL Cholesterol Concentration and Chocolate Fatty Acids May Inhibit Lipid Peroxidation in Healthy Humans
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Code of Federal Regulations: Cacao Products
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database: Special Dark Chocolate Bar
- The Linus Pauling Institute: Antioxidant Activities of Flavonoids
Deila Taylor received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Occidental College with graduate work towards a Ph.D. in pharmacology and nutrition at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. Taylor has written for LoopLane, The Nutrition Counselor, Eve Out of the Garden and produces interviews for The Mormon Women Project. She is a member of the American Society for Nutrition.