8 Surprising Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

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A Young Girl Looking at a Bar of Dark Chocolate.People have cultivated the cacao bean (Theobroma cacao seeds) for millennia.

It has long been known for its health properties, and even ancient tribes like the Mayans and Aztecs valued it.

While ancient peoples used cacao for making bitter chocolate drinks, chocolate bars are the favored option in modern times.

One specific type—dark chocolate—is delicious, and it’s also surprisingly healthy.

In fact, there are multiple health benefits of eating dark chocolate and this article will take a look at eight.

1. Dark Chocolate is Extremely Nutrient-Dense

When we judge the health properties of food, we shouldn’t first look at the number of calories.

The nutritional value of a specific food comes down to nutrient density. This term refers to how many nutrients the food contains relative to the amount of energy.

As an example, an egg would be very high in nutrient density and sugar would be rock bottom.

In this case, dark chocolate happens to be one of the most nutrient-dense foods around.

Here is the vitamin and mineral profile of a dark chocolate bar containing 85% cacao solids (1);

 Per Ounce  Per 100g
Manganese – 46% RDA Manganese – 163% RDA 
Copper – 45% RDA Copper – 160% RDA
Magnesium – 30% RDA Magnesium – 106% RDA
Iron – 19% RDA Iron – 65% RDA
Phosphorus – 18% RDA Phosphorus – 62% RDA
Zinc – 11% RDA Zinc – 38% RDA
Potassium – 10% RDA Potassium – 37% RDA
Selenium – 5% RDA Selenium – 17% RDA
Riboflavin (B2) – 3% RDA Riboflavin (vit B2) – 14% RDA
Calcium – 3% RDA Calcium – 11% RDA
Niacin (B3) – 3% RDA Niacin (B3) – 9% RDA

As shown above, dark chocolate is packed with beneficial vitamins and minerals, and it’s particularly high in manganese, copper and magnesium.

Depending on the specific bar, calories may range from around 150 calories to 175 calories per ounce.

Per 100g, this equates to approximately 535 to 625 calories.

Note: There are big differences between dark and milk chocolate and everything in between.

Key Point: Dark chocolate is full of essential nutrients and it is one of the single biggest sources of magnesium.

2. Dark Chocolate Lowers Oxidized LDL Levels

A Bar Chart Showing a Downward Trend.

One of the most positive aspects of dark chocolate appears to be the impact it has on oxidized LDL cholesterol (OxLDL).

Speaking very simply, the oxidation of LDL occurs when LDL particles stay in circulation for too long and become damaged by free radicals (2, 3, 4).

Oxidized LDL is highly reactive and damages surrounding tissues, such as the lining of our veins and arteries. As a result, it is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Interestingly, various studies demonstrate that dark chocolate flavonoids—a type of polyphenol—help prevent LDL particles from oxidizing.

Specifically, in study participants consuming polyphenol-rich dark chocolate, their plasma (blood) levels of LDL oxidation fell markedly (5, 6).

This effect appears to be through the flavonoids exerting a protective effect and increasing the LDL particle’s resistance to oxidation (7).

Key Point: Dark chocolate appears to be “heart-healthy” too. Oxidized LDL is a major risk factor for heart disease and dark chocolate polyphenols lower oxidized LDL levels.

3. Dark Chocolate May Lower Blood Pressure 

An Old Man Who Has Lowered His Blood Pressure.Staying with the cardiac theme, another benefit of dark chocolate is that it appears to impact blood pressure levels beneficially.

One recent study from Harvard University determined that dark chocolate helps to control blood pressure, especially in hypertensive individuals.

The study was a review of 24 prior research studies, and it analyzed dark chocolate consumption and blood pressure in over 1,106 subjects.

Notably, the results found a clear trend; when the dark chocolate contained at least 50-70% cacao, blood pressure dropped – in all participants consuming it (8).

Further, various other studies show similar findings;

  • In a randomized clinical trial, 30g dark chocolate per day over 15 days led to decreased systolic blood pressure (9).
  • A further randomized and controlled double-blind study of sixty individuals had participants consume 25g dark chocolate per day for eight weeks. Results showed a significant decrease in blood pressure without any confounding factors such as changes in weight, insulin resistance or blood glucose levels (10).

On the other hand, one study—in 194 school children aged between 10 and 12—found no benefit.

That said, this particular study only provided a daily amount of 7g dark chocolate for seven weeks, and the authors admitted that a higher “dose” should be considered (11).

Key Point: Randomized trials show that dark chocolate’s health benefits includes a reduction in blood pressure.

4. Dark Chocolate Helps Protect Skin Against UV Damage

Picture of a Young Couple Sunbathing on the Beach.

Sunlight is vital for our health and offers a beneficial boost to vitamin D and nitric oxide levels. However, too much UV exposure is potentially damaging to our skin in terms of aging and—potentially—skin cancer risk.

Interestingly, the flavonoids in dark chocolate appear to improve our skin’s natural resistance to UV from the sun. To measure UV damage, researchers typically use a measurement known as minimal erythema dose (MED) (12).

For example, a controlled double-blind study fed high flavanol (HF_ chocolate to one group and low flavanol (LF) chocolate to another for 30 days. Surprisingly, the UV resistance of the HF group more than doubled while the LF group remained unchanged (13).

A further study shows that long-term ingestion of high flavanol dark cacao leads to higher skin density, better skin hydration, and increased UV resistance (14).

Although this is a nice benefit of dark chocolate, it’s important to stay safe in the sun.

Eating a little chocolate isn’t powerful protection against sunburn, so this doesn’t mean you can bask in the sunshine all day. It is better to seek shade (or cover up) once you have been out for a while.

Key Point: UV light has both benefits and dangers, so it important to get just the right amount. Studies show that dark chocolate helps to protect against damage from UVA and UVB.

5. Dark Chocolate Has Mood-Boosting Properties

A Cartoon Picture of Two Dark Chocolate Bars With a Happy Face.Almost everyone loves chocolate, and one of the reasons why could be because it makes us feel happy.

Dark chocolate contains a compound called theobromine and this—alongside similar compounds such as caffeine—is a class of methylxanthine.

Theobromine affects our central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine and can help us relax and feel content. Additionally, it has beneficial impacts on levels of alertness, focus, and energy (15).

However, this isn’t the only reason why dark chocolate boosts mood.

There is evidence that chocolate interacts with neurotransmitters, increases serotonin levels, and releases “feel-good” endorphins. This effect is because chocolate naturally contains serotonin and the dopamine pre-cursor tyrosine (16).

Research also suggests that dark chocolate (or cacao) might be a useful aid for patients suffering from depression or mental health issues.

On this note, researchers are investigating possible benefits for a wide range of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (17).

Key Point: Dark chocolate can make us feel happier and more focused.

6. Dark Chocolate Raises HDL (the “Good Cholesterol”)

Picture of a HDL Particle Made to Look Like An Angel.

There are many arguments and disagreements regarding cholesterol and how it affects our health.

However, almost everyone agrees that high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is beneficial and that a higher number is positive.

While LDL transports cholesterol around the body, HDL has the job of removing it.

As we discussed earlier, LDL can become problematic if it remains in circulation long enough to oxidize and this makes a higher amount of HDL ideal.

On the positive side, dark chocolate repeatedly increases the concentration of HDL in clinical and randomized controlled studies (18, 19, 20).

High levels of HDL are believed to be one of the most significant protective factors against cardiovascular disease, so this is a nice health benefit of dark chocolate (21).

Furthermore, dark chocolate typically improves other cardiac health markers such as insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and blood pressure (22).

Key Point: Dark chocolate consumption generally raises HDL levels and, as shown earlier, protects against LDL oxidation.

7. Dark Chocolate Contains Large Amounts of Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a type of phytonutrient that we can find in plant foods.

They have antioxidant properties, although the pathway through which they exert benefits in the body is not fully understood (23).

We can find polyphenols in all types of food, but significant sources include coffee, chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, herbs and spices, red wine, and tea (24).

There is a wealth of studies showing the benefits of these compounds, and a higher intake is associated with a reduced rate of most chronic diseases (25, 26, 27).

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For instance, their mechanisms potentially play a role in fighting inflammation and possibly reducing the early development of cancer and various neurological diseases.

Drinking tea/coffee, using herbs and spices, and having an occasional wine with chocolate are all enjoyable things to do.

On the positive side, they appear to have some decent health benefits too.

Key Point: Dark chocolate is one of the most polyphenol-rich foods in the human diet.

8. Lastly: Dark Chocolate Tastes Great!

Picture of a Woman Smiling While Eating Dark Chocolate.

If this was an article about the health benefits of some insect food or organ meat, then it might be a hard sell.

But this is chocolate, and chocolate tastes delicious.

While it’s not a miraculous superfood (no food is), it does have various health benefits, and it’s a joy to eat.

In other words, providing you’re eating the right sort of chocolate bar, it’s not something to feel guilty about.

The bonus is that eating chocolate is always something to look forward to!

Key Point: Dark chocolate is not only good for you, but it’s rather tasty too.

What is the Best Dark Chocolate Bar?

Picture of Dark Chocolate Pieces in a Pile.Dark chocolate comes in all shapes and sizes.

There are three distinct categories of bars known as semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened.

Semisweet

Semisweet dark chocolate contains approximately 40-65% cacao and provides a relatively large amount of sugar.

Bittersweet

Bittersweet dark chocolate tends to be over 70% cacao solids and can be anything up to 99%.

It is also sometimes referred to as “extra dark” and due to the higher cacao solids, it contains a lot less sugar.

Unsweetened

Unsweetened dark chocolate is self-explanatory and contains no sugar. This type of chocolate is extremely bitter and people usually mix it with other ingredients for baking purposes.

Note: There is very little regulation over these terms, so make sure to check labels to see the precise nutritional breakdown. 

Which is the Best?

To get the full benefits of dark chocolate without the negatives (excessive sugar) then going for an 85% or higher bar is the best option.

If that seems too bitter, then you can start off around the 70% mark and then try to work your way up.

For some of the best dark chocolate bars, see this guide here.

Key Point: Chocolate bars with over 85% cacao solids are the best choice for health benefits.

Or…. Make Homemade Dark Chocolate!

Picture of Melted Chocolate in a Mixing Bowl.

If you are feeling adventurous, then it’s possible to make your own chocolate at home and skip the sugar altogether.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s straightforward too.

First, you need the following ingredients;

  • 200g (7oz) 100% unsweetened chocolate
  • 50g (1.75oz) cacao butter (optional replacement: coconut oil)
  • 2 tbsp erythritol
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Optional: 1 shot of espresso
  • Optional: 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Method

  • First, melt down the chocolate and fat in a bowl over boiling water. Don’t allow any water to come in the bowl!
  • Next, blend the erythritol to make it into powdered form rather than granules and add it to the bowl.
  • Mix everything, add the salt and optional espresso or vanilla extract.
  • Make sure the mixture has a smooth consistency and then pour into a chocolate bar mold.
  • Put the mold into the refrigerator, and it will harden as it cools.

A few hours later, it will be firm, and you’ll have your own homemade dark chocolate bar.

For any coffee lovers out there, I recommend using the shot of espresso… it’s delicious.

Key Point: Making your own dark chocolate bar at home is surprisingly easy, and it’s delicious too – especially if you use cacao butter.

How Much Dark Chocolate Should You Eat Per Day?

As mentioned earlier, dark chocolate has some excellent health benefits but it’s not a “superfood” and moderation is important.

Additionally, you don’t need to eat it every day (or even at all).

Personally, I think a one-ounce (28g) serving is about right if it’s going to be a regular thing.

In summary, it’s important to make sure we choose a chocolate high in cacao solids.

For genuine dark chocolate, we can also enjoy it without guilt because it offers various health benefits.