Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

With Valentines Day being one of the highlights of February and with so much chocolate being consumed this month, I thought it would be interesting to research the effects of chocolate on your health. This is what I have found:

To begin with, there are three types of chocolate on the market: dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. You wouldn’t think that any candy bar could ever be nutritious, but the nutritional value of dark chocolate is very impressive. Milk chocolate is over processed and has too much added milk and/or sugar to be healthy. And white chocolate is really not chocolate at all because it contains no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter.

Dark chocolate is made from the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. After the seeds have been removed from their pods, allowed to ferment, dry and roast, they are then called cocoa beans. Cocoa is naturally bitter and strong tasting. Chocolate-makers (especially makers of milk chocolate) mellow this flavor by processes, such as alkalizing (also called Dutch processing), fermenting, roasting, and adding milk and/or sugar. All of these greatly reduce the nutritional value of chocolate.

Quality dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or greater is loaded with nutrients that studies have shown improve health and lower the risk of heart disease. It is rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, copper and manganese. It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. Cocoa and dark chocolate have a wider variety of powerful antioxidants than most other foods. It is loaded with organic compounds such as polyphenols, flavanols, catechins, and others that are biologically active and function as antioxidants.

Antioxidants help rid your body of free radicals which cause oxidative damage to our cells. Free radicals are believed to cause the aging process and may also cause cancer. Eating foods rich in antioxidants like dark chocolate can protect you from many types of cancer and slow the signs of aging. Also, the bioactive compounds in dark chocolate are beneficial for your skin as flavanols protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration.

Other health benefits of dark chocolate include improved blood flow and lower blood pressure, reduced insulin resistance, improved LDL to HDL ratio (bad to good cholesterol levels) and reduced oxidation of LDL making it less damaging to the lining of the arteries. Observational studies show a drastic reduction in heart disease risk for the people who consume the most chocolate.

Lastly, dark chocolate is good for your brain. One study showed that five days of consuming dark chocolate improved blood flow to the brain. It can help improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of stroke. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical your brain creates when you feel like you are falling in love, which causes the brain to release endorphins (chemicals in our bodies that make us feel good).

The benefits to eating dark chocolate are abundant but remember that chocolate is also high in fat and does contain sugar. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the less sugar. One ounce of dark chocolate is recommended per day and don’t forget to brush!

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