Many of us can relate to the stress easing benefits that a square or three of our favourite chocolate can bring. For some it’s a daily pleasure, for others, chocolate is that treat at the end of a hard week and we’re sure many would say that it’s the ultimate comfort food.
With Easter fast approaching, we think it is the perfect time to discuss the benefits of dark chocolate – that is chocolate containing 70% or more cocoa solids.
How is chocolate produced?
Chocolate is produced from the seeds of the Cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. Cacao production is very labour intensive, trees require hand harvesting as the pods can reach a size comparable to butternut squash, holding between 30 and 50 seeds or beans.
The seeds from the cacao tree are known as cacao beans or cocoa beans. Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cacao and removes the fat (cacao butter).
Although cocoa and cacao look the same, they are very different. Cacao is raw and unprocessed but after roasting at high temperatures it is called cocoa. Unfortunately, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cacao bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.
Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
It is important to understand what we are talking about when we are discussing the positive aspects of chocolate – we are only talking about dark chocolate that is more than 70% cocoa solids.
Milk chocolate contains a high sugar content and sometimes the inclusion of other undesirable ingredients. Here’s a comparison of the sugar content in different types of chocolate (per 40g serving):
– 85% dark chocolate contains 1.5 teaspoons of sugar (4g = 1 teaspoon)
– 70% contains 3 teaspoons of sugar
– Milk chocolate contains around 5.5 teaspoons of sugar
Most of chocolate’s benefits come from flavanols (phytonutrients found in cocoa), which have antioxidant effects and a very bitter taste! However, as soon as it is fermented, alkalised and roasted to counterbalance the taste, the flavanols start to disappear.
Some of the benefits of dark chocolate
Whilst raw cacao undoubtedly offers the best health benefits, research has shown benefits from consuming dark chocolate (70% or more), for example:
Chocolate and cardiovascular disease
One of the benefits of dark chocolate is the impact it has on oxidised LDL cholesterol. Oxidised LDL is highly reactive and damages surrounding tissues, such as the lining of veins and arteries. As a result, it is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Various studies demonstrate that dark chocolate flavonoids (polyphenols) help prevent LDL particles from oxidising. In one study, in participants consuming polyphenol-rich dark chocolate, their plasma levels of LDL oxidation fell markedly.1,2
Polyphenols also increase the vasodilation of blood vessels and thus promote circulation. Cocoa flavanols thus have an EFSA permitted health claim “Cocoa flavanols help maintain elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.”
A 2019 review3 on the cardioprotective mechanisms of cocoa concluded: “Cocoa consumption may be a good strategy in diminishing cardiovascular risk. Beneficial effects on platelet aggregation, blood pressure, dyslipidemia, glycemia, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity are observed”.
Chocolate, our mood and stress
Most people love chocolate, sometimes it gives us the quick boost we need. But there might actually be some scientific explanation as to why chocolate is so popular – it has mood-boosting properties.
This may be due to:
- i) the orosensory characteristics of chocolate;
- ii) the presence of valeric acid which acts as a stress reducer and
iii) a compound called theobromine which is a methylxanthine. Theobromine affects the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine and can help us to feel relaxed and content. Additionally, it has beneficial impacts on levels of alertness, focus and energy.4
Dark chocolate can have a positive impact on cortisol levels, one of the hormones released in response to stress. A Swiss study of subjects eating 40g per day found that “the daily consumption of dark chocolate resulted in a significant modification of the metabolism of healthy and free-living human volunteers with potential long-term consequences on human health within only 2 weeks treatment,” the researchers wrote “this was observable through the reduction of levels of stress-associated hormones and normalization of the systemic stress metabolic signatures”5.
Chocolate and cognitive function
Believe it or not, dark chocolate has been shown to improve brain health!
The flavanols that are absorbed when chocolate is eaten penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially in the hippocampus, according to researchers.
Chocolate and cocoa improved cognitive function in human double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, both in healthy young adults and in older people with mild cognitive impairment.6
In Mexico there is evidence that the high levels of pollution (particulate matter and ozone pollution) are having damaging effects on the brains of young children – extensive neuroinflammation, oxidative stress and hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease pathology are present in the brains of Mexico City children and young adults with chronic year-long exposures to high levels of ozone and particulate matter. In an intervention study, children were given 30g of dark cocoa daily for 9-24 days. The researchers concluded: “Our findings suggest that cocoa interventions may be critical for early implementation of neuroprotection of highly exposed urban children. Multi-domain nutraceutical interventions could limit the risk for endothelial dysfunction, cerebral hypoperfusion, neuroinflammation, cognitive deficits, structural volumetric detrimental brain effects, and the early development of the neuropathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.”7
Chocolate and the gut
The cocoa flavanols, catechin and epicatechin, along with a small amount of dietary fibre, are poorly digested and absorbed, however friendly gut bacteria ferment these polyphenols producing small, anti-inflammatory molecules that are easily absorbed. Cocoa and/or chocolate modifies intestinal flora in the same way that prebiotics and probiotics do.
Chocolate and your skin
According to two studies, dark chocolate may actually help to protect skin from UV light by improving blood flow to the skin and increasing skin density and hydration.8,9
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 20g per day of dark chocolate high in flavanols for 12 weeks.9
The negative side to chocolate
Although we’ve discussed the benefits of chocolate, in moderation, it’s important to remember the potential adverse effects. For some, cocoa can trigger a migraine; this may be due to it containing the amino acid tyramine, a well-known migraine trigger.
Chocolate also contains between 18 – 70mg of caffeine per 100g (a cup of instant coffee contains around 80mg). Caffeine can be an issue for people sensitive to it, in particular, those with difficulty sleeping. Caffeine can also increase blood pressure and anxiety – however other factors in chocolate have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety so this may be less of a problem.
Although dark chocolate is mainly monounsaturated fat, it does contain some saturated fat and as mentioned earlier it still contains sugar so it is best eaten in moderate amounts of 20-40g portions per day (if weight management is a priority then limit consumption to 20g per day).
- Chocolate is produced from the seed of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. Milk chocolate is high in sugar and can include other undesirable ingredients.
- Most of dark chocolate’s benefits come from flavanols – phytonutrients found in cocoa.
- Research has shown dark chocolate (70% cocoa and above) to have numerous health benefits including on cholesterol and cardiovascular health, mood, cognitive function, gut health, and protection of skin from sun damage.
- Dark chocolate is best consumed in moderation – 20g to 40g per day (if weight management is a priority then limit consumption to 20g per day)
- Dark chocolate contains between 18-70mg of caffeine per 100g (a cup on instant coffee contains around 80mg). So people sensitive to caffeine may need to be careful with consumption. In addition dark chocolate can be a migraine trigger for some people.
If you have any questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Clare) by phone or email at any time.
[email protected], 01684 310099
Clare Daley and the Cytoplan Editorial Team
Relevant Cytoplan products
Wholefood Multi – a multivitamin and mineral supplement made from minerals that have been hydroponically-grown into a cruciferous vegetable resembling broccoli. Ideal for adults and children (12 years plus) in an easy-to-take daily capsule and including antioxidants, vitamin D and chromium.
Blood Glucose Support – an excellent multi-mineral formula with added cinnamon designed to help regulate blood sugar levels. The key active ingredients are chromium GTF, zinc, magnesium and cinnamon.