Like we NEEDED another excuse to munch away on dark chocolate!
You might not think of chocolate as being a health booster, but it can do a surprising number of good things for your body and mind (not to mention, your tastebuds)!
This article explores why this treat could hold the key to working towards your wellness goals.
By the end, you’re guaranteed to see dark chocolate in a whole new light!
What is dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate isn’t the same as milk or white chocolate because it contains no added milk solids, which make milk and white chocolate lighter in colour.1
Most dark chocolate bars are made from the following key ingredients – cacao beans, sugar, an emulsifier, such as soy lecithin to help preserve the texture, and flavourings, such as vanilla.
The more cocoa and less sugar there is in dark chocolate, the more bitter it tastes. That’s why it’s such a popular baking ingredient and can be found in so many desserts.
Just like milk and white chocolate, you can eat dark chocolate as it comes, straight out of the packet.
It can be chopped, ground, shaved or melted and is a common ingredient in ganache, glazes, mousses and puddings.
What’s more, because dark chocolate contains very little to zero milk, it’s a popular vegan ingredient too (the zero milk variety).
How does dark chocolate compare with milk and white?
So, we’ve already established that dark chocolate isn’t the same thing as milk and white chocolate. But what are the main differences? How do they compare to one another?
One of the main differences is flavour and, of course, the ingredients that are used to make the chocolate.2
Dark chocolate is made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar and contains minimal amounts of milk or no milk at all.
What does it taste like? Semi-sweet and slightly bitter compared to milk and white chocolate.
Milk chocolate contains more milk and dairy fat than dark chocolate, hence the name. It’s also a lot lighter in colour than dark chocolate too.
What does it taste like? Creamier, smoother and less bitter than dark chocolate.
White chocolate doesn’t contain any of the cocoa solids that dark and milk chocolate does, which is why it’s the colour that it is. However, it does contain cocoa butter, milk and sugar.
What does it taste like? Almost milk-like, fresh and creamy, with a slightly sweet, sometimes vanilla undertone, to it.
- Dark chocolate contains no added milk solids, which make milk and white chocolate lighter in colour
- The more cocoa and less sugar there is in dark chocolate, the more bitter the taste
- Because some dark chocolate contains zero milk, it’s a popular vegan ingredient
13 benefits of dark chocolate
Other than tasting great, what are the benefits of eating dark chocolate? There are quite a few, let’s explore some of those wider dark chocolate health benefits:
Dark chocolate for the heart
Studies have found there may be a connection between dark chocolate and heart health.
Analysis of several studies published in the Heart journal reported that people who ate more chocolate a day had a lower risk of developing heart disease and experiencing a stroke.3
What’s more, several observational studies have concluded that eating dark chocolate regularly may reduce the risk of heart disease.
According to a study published in Clinical Nutrition, people who ate dark chocolate more than five times a week reduced their risk of heart disease by 57%.
Dark chocolate and brain health
Research has shown that chocolate stimulates neural activity in areas of the brain that are connected with pleasure and reward, which helps reduce stress and improves mood.
Studies have found that eating 48g of organic chocolate with 70% cacao increased neuroplasticity in the brain, which could have positive effects on memory, cognition and mood.
The high levels of flavonoids in dark chocolate are believed to be responsible for improving learning and memory, according to The FASEB Journal.4
Dark chocolate magnesium
Dark chocolate contains several nutrients, one of which includes magnesium, one of the most abundant minerals in our body.
Dark chocolate contains around 176mg of magnesium per 100g, which is relatively high.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s involved in more than 300 chemical reactions, particularly in relation to the metabolic process that converts food into energy.
It’s also vital for muscles and nerve functionality and helps your immune and skeletal systems stay strong.5
Dark chocolate antioxidants
The University of Michigan Health System recommends that people should eat 1 ounce of dark chocolate every day.
This is due to the fact it contains antioxidants called flavonoids that are good for heart health.
They can help lower your LDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of blood clots and increase blood flow through the arteries and heart.6
Dark chocolate cholesterol
Following on from the last benefit, dark chocolate is known for being a cholesterol-lowering food.
A study published in November 2017 in the Journal of the American Heart found that eating a handful of almonds, dark chocolate and unsweetened cocoa led to a significant drop in ‘bad’ cholesterol, which can clog arteries.
The cocoa butter content is believed to help increase ‘good’ cholesterol levels too. Cocoa butter contains oleic acid, which is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.7
The difference between healthy fats & bad fats
This article is designed to guide you through the world of good and bad fats; where to find them and why we need them.
The difference between healthy fats & bad fats
Dark chocolate and weight loss
As crazy as it sounds, dark chocolate may help with losing calories. This is due to the fact that
eating a small amount of dark chocolate before or after meals triggers hormones that tells your brain you are full.
However, it’s important to remember to still enjoy it in small doses due to its sugar and saturated fat levels.9
Dark chocolate and gut health
According to an article in the Frontiers in Pharmacology, during digestion chocolate behaves like a prebiotic, which is a type of fibre that encourages the growth of good gut bacteria.
The more ‘good’ microbes there are in your system, the better your body is able to absorb nutrients and support a healthy metabolism.10
Handpicked content: Guide to microbiome
Dark chocolate and blood sugar levels
Studies have shown that healthy amounts of dark chocolate, with a high cacao content, could potentially improve how the body metabolises glucose, which can help prevent insulin resistance; the cause of high blood sugar levels.
In a study published in the Journal of Community and Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, the flavonoids in dark chocolate were found to reduce oxidative stress, which is believed to be the primary cause of insulin resistance.
By improving your body’s sensitivity to insulin, resistance is reduced. In turn, the risk of diseases, like diabetes, decreases.11
Other dark chocolate benefits:
- It can give you an energy boost because of its caffeine content.12
- Dark chocolate may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.13
- It may help calm a cough. 14
- Dark chocolate boosts red blood cell distribution.15
- It may prevent skin from the sun’s UV rays.16
- Dark chocolate has been linked to several health benefits
- They include reducing the risk of developing heart disease and experiencing a stroke and better brain health
- It’s also been connected with lowering blood sugar levels, boosting good gut bacteria growth, and more…
Dark chocolate nutrition
We all know that dark chocolate tastes good, but what about its nutritional value; is it just as good? Well, the good news is that dark chocolate contains numerous nutrients.17
And, it gets even better. Because the darker the chocolate, the better.
Research published in the Antioxidants & Redox Signaling Journal, revealed that dark chocolate that has a cocoa content of 70% or more contains antioxidants, fibre, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
To break this down even further, 100g of 70 to 85% dark chocolate contains:
- Dark chocolate calories: 598
- 43g fat
- 3mg cholesterol
- 20mg sodium
- 46 carbohydrate
- 7.8g protein
- 73mg calcium
- 11.9mg iron
- 715mg potassium18
Around 20g of dark chocolate is the recommended portion size.
This equates to around six small pieces or two large squares, depending on the size of the chocolate bar.
However, because dark chocolate can be high in saturated fat and sugar, it’s best to have it as an occasional treat and as part of a balanced diet.19
For example, 20g of 90% cocoa chocolate will offer more health benefits than 20g of 75% cocoa chocolate).
Be mindful of the fact that flavoured dark chocolates, such as orange, caramel or sea salt, are likely to contain more sugar and salt. It’s best to stick to just plain old dark chocolate if you can.20
- The darker the chocolate, the better
- Dark chocolate that has a cocoa content of 70% or more contains antioxidants, fibre, potassium, calcium and magnesium
- Around 20g of dark chocolate is the recommended healthy portion size
Best time to eat dark chocolate
Surely it’s all of the time, right? As much as it sounds like everybody’s idea of heaven, eating chocolate all day long is far from ideal.
As we all know, it’s best to enjoy it in moderation.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not an optimum time to savour it.
According to researchers from Tel Aviv University, morning is the best time to enjoy sweet treats, chocolate included.
Eating a breakfast, including protein, carbs AND dessert could help you lose weight and keep it off.21
They carried out a 32-week study of clinically obese people and found that those who made dessert (cookies, cake or chocolate) part of their 600-calorie breakfasts lost an average of 40 pounds more than people, who ate small, 300-calorie, low-carb breakfasts.
Both groups consumed the same amount of total calories per day (1,600 for men and 1,400 for women).
- Research has found it’s best to eat sweet treats, including dark chocolate, in the morning
- It’s believed to help people lose weight – and keep it off
- It needs to be eaten in moderation and alongside protein and carbs though, not just on its own
Is dark chocolate suitable for everyone?
As delicious as it may taste, there are reportedly some side effects to eating dark chocolate, especially if it’s not in moderation.22 23
According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, dark chocolate contains more caffeine than milk chocolate and white chocolate.
Consuming large amounts of dark chocolate can potentially lead to an increased heart rate, diarrhoea, anxiety, irritability, nervousness and dehydration.
Caffeine can also cause an increase in blood pressure and difficulty in focus or concentration.
If you are sensitive to caffeine or if you suffer from high blood pressure, you should avoid consuming large amounts of dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate can reportedly increase your chance of developing kidney stones.
Studies by the University of Maryland Medical Center found that dark chocolate contains oxalates that can trigger increased urinary oxalate excretion, which can increase your risk of forming kidney stones.
If you are at risk of kidney stone formation or have a history of them, it’s probably best you steer clear of dark chocolate.
We’ve already mentioned dark chocolate’s sugar content a bit further up.
According to Clemson University, one ounce of dark chocolate contains 150 calories; the majority of which are sugar and fat.
The research also concluded that dark chocolate is healthier than white chocolate or milk chocolate, and it may contain antioxidants - it should still be enjoyed in moderation.
While there may be some concerns in relation to whether or not it’s safe to eat chocolate overall, not just dark chocolate, during pregnancy, research suggests there are some benefits to it.
For instance, it may reduce the risk of developing preeclampsia and gestational hypertension.
One study, in particular, found that eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day during the first trimester improved blood flow to the foetus.
Expectant moms in the study ate around one ounce of dark chocolate a day, which is the equivalent of a bar of chocolate or 54 chocolate chips.
Again, dark chocolate should be eaten in moderation, especially because of its caffeine content.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends pregnant women keep their caffeine intake below 200mg a day.
If you drink any caffeinated beverages and like to snack on chocolate, be mindful of the recommended daily intake guidance.
- Dark chocolate contains more caffeine than milk chocolate and white chocolate and may trigger caffeine side effects, e.g. increased heart rate, anxiety and irritability
- It also contains oxalates that can trigger increased urinary oxalate excretion, which can increase the risk of developing kidney stones
- Dark chocolate may reduce the risk of developing preeclampsia and gestational hypertension
Dark chocolate – what’s not to love about it?! It tastes great, especially in desserts, it’s vegan-friendly, and contains a number of nutrients.
However, it can be high in sugar and fat, so when it comes to enjoying your dark chocolate fix, it’s always best to apply the principle, less is more.
Alternatively, you could give sugar-free chocolate a whirl. You can find out all about it in this article, ‘5 of the best sugar free chocolate snacks.’
Last updated: 3 February 2022