Good news, chocolate lovers — you have an ally in science. Though we have been conditioned to think of chocolate as a tempting indulgence or treat to enjoy solely in moderation (remember that come Valentine’s Day), research shows that consuming a small amount of dark chocolate on a regular basis is actually pretty sweet for the body and may contribute to overall health.
A study in the medical journal Heart, published in 2015, found that habitual dark chocolate consumption was linked to heart health and the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have also noted dark chocolate’s beneficial effects on cognitive function in recent studies, finding that older adults that enjoyed a regular intake had improved blood flow to the brain, a necessary component for better memory. And the University of Michigan’s department of Integrative Medicine touts dark chocolate so much that it went so far as to devote a spot for it at the top of its “Healing Foods Pyramid,” which is full of whole, plant-based foods that “nourish the body, sustain energy over time and contain healing qualities and essential nutrients.”
Though cocoa and cacao (raw forms of chocolate) have been used medicinally as far back as the Aztec and Mayan cultures in the 12th century, its nutritive benefits are a growing focus for study in many science and health fields, which are finding compelling evidence of its efficacy in disease prevention, metabolism and emotional health.
According to Dr. Curtis Mann, M.D., a family medicine physician with NorthShore University HealthSystem, the reason that dark chocolate is so powerful is that “it contains antioxidants, specifically flavonoids, that some studies have linked to cancer prevention, reductions in circulatory system inflammation and the ability to lower high blood pressure.”
Another compound of chocolate, called phenethylamine, also releases endorphins that are closely linked to the brain’s pleasure center. “Chocolate also increases serotonin levels in your brain, which can aid a variety of psychological functions, including sleep and appetite,” Mann says. Supporting research has found that eating dark chocolate reduced the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, which also has a profound effect on metabolic processes, meaning, it can actually help you lose weight.
Chocolate is also super concentrated in essential minerals like potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, all of which can have individual positive effects on the body.
Chicago-based entrepreneur and independent researcher Valerie Beck says chocolate is so essential to well-being, “We can’t afford not to eat it.” Beck is the owner of Chocolate Uplift, a company that combines consultation for global cocoa growers and artisan makers as well as public speaking and media coaching on the history and health benefits of chocolate. A popular part of her business is Valerie’s Original Chocolate Tours, wherein Beck spreads this awareness by taking guests to her favorite local spots like FoodEase’s Chocolate Closet (in Water Tower Place) to secure the purest varieties.
Because the truth, she says, is that not all chocolate is created equal. The darker, or more raw, varieties have more nutritive power because they are closer to the natural source. What we call chocolate originates from the seed of the fruit of the cacao tree, seeds which are packed with those antioxidants and flavonoids — “more than even blueberries, acai, tea, and other superfoods,” she says.
The issue with most mass-produced chocolate, on the other hand, is that it’s adulterated with loads of refined sugar, milk (which blocks the body’s ability to absorb nutrients) and artificial ingredients. So, those popular candy bars “almost have no chocolate at all,” says Beck.
She recommends looking for bars that have only pure cacao and cane sugar, as well as high percentages of cacao. Mann suggests “a chocolate with at least 60 percent cacao [which] is best for health benefits.” He also says to choose a variety that uses cocoa butter (a natural saturated fat also found in olive oil) rather than butterfat.
Beck’s latest venture is a Birchbox-style subscription program where she gives consumers the chance to try some of her favorites, including the Undone brand, based in Washington, D.C., that was started by a former biochemist as a result of researching antioxidants and finding the full potential in chocolate.
“We really are in a chocolate revolution right now,” says Beck, relating the boon in artisan confectioners to the rise of the craft beer movement. “The U.S. now has about 300 small batch craft chocolate makers, which is really exciting since artisan chocolate harnesses more of the health benefits from their limited processes.”
So how much and how often should you eat dark chocolate? It’s always recommended that you check with your doctor before changing your eating habits/recommended caloric intake. The University of Michigan recommends up to seven ounces per week, or an average of one ounce per day. Beck agrees with that assessment. “Having just a square or two or pure dark chocolate every day will give you those benefits and also be quite satisfying so you won’t feel the need to go overboard.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.