Does Chocolate Really Have Health Benefits?

Chocolate, especially dark, has several health benefits. Learn the latest research, including recent added sugar recommendations from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Does Chocolate Really Have Health Benefits? - Articles
Does Chocolate Really Have Health Benefits?

Photo credit: Lee McCoy, Flickr Creative Commons

Nutrition Information

There has been an increase in attention toward chocolate and the benefits it has for our health. Chocolate containing 70 percent or more cocoa, known as dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate, has shown beneficial effects. However, new research shows that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent can be beneficial due to different manufacturing processes. The benefits that come from consuming chocolate are in the chocolate liquor (solids) used to make it. Here is the latest research on dark chocolate's health benefits.

Blood Pressure

Research has indicated that consuming dark chocolate in moderation can lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. Dark chocolate has this effect due to its high polyphenol contentspecifically, the flavanols (flavonoids), a subgroup of the polyphenolic family. Only dark chocolate has these health benefits; white chocolate contains zero polyphenols and has no cocoa solids. Milk chocolate contains very little polyphenols and a small percentage of cocoa solids. The polyphenols have the ability to lower blood pressure by increasing the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide sends signals that cause the arteries to relax. When the arteries relax, the resistance of blood flow will then decrease, lowering blood pressure.

Chronic Diseases and Antioxidants

Dark chocolate contains epicatechin flavanols and catechins, which are polyphenols and antioxidants that have been shown to improve cardiovascular disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, hypercholesterolemia, and cognition. Flavanols can increase endothelial function, which has a protective effect. Additional research is needed to identify more of dark chocolate's protective factors with chronic disease. New research recommends the amount of epicatechin be labeled, as this flavanol is the best indicator of overall health benefits.

Skin Protection

Antioxidants from the diet contribute to maintaining healthy skin. Cocoa mass or chocolate liquor found in dark chocolate increases skin hydration and skin density, decreases the roughness of skin, and increases the blood flow in tissues. The antioxidants in dark chocolate also act endogenously as "photoprotectors" from the sun.

Tip: Eating dark chocolate in moderation can decrease cardiovascular risk, lower blood pressure, increase antioxidative properties, and increase skin protection.

Table: Tips Affecting Different Age Groups: U.S. Dietary Guideline Recommendations 2015-2020 for Limiting Added Sugar
1-3 years
(child)
4-8 Years
(female)
4-8 Years
(male)
9-13 Years
(female)
9-13 Years
(male)
14-18 Years
(female)
14-18 Years
(male)
19-30 Years
(female)
19-30 Years
(male)
31-50 Years
(female)
31-50 Years
(male)
51+ Years
(female)
51+ Years
(male)
Kcal Levels
Assessed
(USDA)
1,0001,2001,400
1,600
1,6001,8001,8002,000
2,800
3,000
2,0002,400
2,600
3,000
1,8002,2001,6002,000
Added
Sugars,
<10%
calories
<100<120<140-160<160<180<180<10%<200<10%<180<220<160<200

However, skin protection has been seen mainly in people who have consumed dark chocolate over a long period of time. This does not mean they consumed dark chocolate every day or in large amounts, but that they have eaten dark chocolate in moderation for an extended period of time.

Shopping Tips

Ever find yourself standing in the candy or baking aisles contemplating which chocolate you should get after a long and stressful day? After reading the following tips you will no longer need to wonder whether the choice you made was the right one. Products can be very misleading when you focus solely on their names. You will want to check the front of the package for the percentage of cocoa. Remember, the recommendation is 70 percent or higher. Look for products that have a high content of chocolate liquor, but watch for the amount of sugar and fat.

The major factor to remember is that dark chocolate should be consumed in moderation. Research studies have shown a moderate amount is 1 ounce. This may not seem like a large amount, but it is recommended to consume dark chocolate regularly. This means at least once every week, as long as you are following the 1-ounce limit. Dark chocolate still contains sugar--some brands more than others--and we all know a diet high in sugar can lead to an increase in weight gain, cavities, and possibly chronic diseases. See the table above for the latest recommendations from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Frozen Greek Yogurt Bark with Pomegranate and Dark Chocolate

Serving Size: 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups Greek yogurt (plain or vanilla)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar (if using plain yogurt)
  • ½ cup pomegranate seeds
  • ½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips or a dark chocolate bar broken into chunks
  • 2 Tbsp shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)

Directions

  1. First, use a paring knife to remove the core of the pomegranate. Make 6 to 8 slices halfway down the pomegranate, then pull the sliced edges apart but do not break them off. Turn the pomegranate upside in a bowl and tap the top with a wooden spoon to release the seeds into the bowl.
  2. Into the yogurt, mix about half of the pomegranate and chocolate.
  3. Pour onto a parchment-paper-lined, rimmed baking sheet, spreading it out to be about ¼ inch (½ centimeter) thick.
  4. Sprinkle with remaining pomegranate, chocolate, and shredded coconut.
  5. Freeze for a few hours, until hard.
  6. Using a knife or hard spatula, break the bark into chunks. Transfer to an airtight container and store in freezer.

Nutrient Information

Serving size: 2 Tbsp; 83 calories; 5 g fat; 8 g carbohydrates; 38 mg sodium;
2.5 g protein.

Source: “Frozen Greek Yogurt Bark with Pomegranate and Dark Chocolate,” Live
Eat Learn, November 21, 2015.

References

Alañón, M. E., S.M. Castle, P. J. Siswanto, T. Cifuentes-Gómez, and J. P. E. Spencer. "Assessment of flavanol stereoisomers and caffeine and theobromine content in commercial chocolates." Food Chemistry 208, no. 1 (October 2016): 177-84.

"Antioxidants: In Depth." National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. November 2013.

"Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations." In 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th ed. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. December 2015.

Davide G., D. Giovambattista, S. Necozione, C. Lippi4, R. Casale, G. Properzi, J. B. Blumberg, and C. Ferri. "Blood pressure is reduced and insulin sensitivity increased in glucoseintolerant, hypertensive subjects after 15 days of consuming highpolyphenol dark chocolate." J Nutr 138, no. 9 (September 2008): 1671-76.

Fraga, C. G. "Cocoa, diabetes, and hypertension: Should we eat more chocolate?" Am J Clin Nutr 81, no. 3 (March 2005): 541-42.

Grassi, D., D. Giovambattista, S. Necozione, C. Lippi, R. Casale, G. Properzi, J. B. Blumberg, and C. Ferri. “Blood pressure is reduced and insulin sensitivity increased in glucose-intolerant, hypertensive subjects after 15 days of consuming high-polyphenol dark chocolate.” J Nutr 138, no. 9 (September 2008): 1671–76.

Gunnars, K. "7 Proven Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate." Authority Nutrition. authoritynutrition.com/7-health-benefits-dark-chocolate.

Kerimi, A., and G. Williamson. "The cardiovascular benefits of dark chocolate." Vascul Pharmacol 71 (August 2015): 11-15..

Lobo, V., A. Patil, A. Phatak, and N. Chandra. "Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health." Pharmacogn Rev 4, no. 8 (July-December 2010): 118-126..

Prepared by Colleen Perks, Penn State nutrition student and extension intern. Reviewed by Stacy Reed, extension educator, and Lynn James, senior extension educator.

Authors

Nutrition research and education Diabetes education Child overweight prevention Food Safety education Food Preservation

More by Lynn James, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.