What are the health benefits of dark chocolate?

25 March 2024 597 view(s)
What are the health benefits of dark chocolate?

What are the health benefits of dark chocolate?

The history of chocolate dates back to around 1500BC with the American Maya, for whom chocolate was a cocoa drink prepared with hot water and often flavoured with cinnamon, honey and pepper. The ancient Aztec civilisations believed cocoa was a gift from their gods and cocoa beans were considered more valuable than gold! While today, most people see chocolate is an indulgent treat, throughout history there is evidence of chocolate being used as a medicine for its purported healing properties, and as a treatment for a range of health conditions from angina to haemorrhoids, gout, tooth decay and even as an aphrodisiac. 

Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which provides a high level of minerals and antioxidants. In contrast to the cacao rich drinks of the Aztecs and Maya people, commercial milk chocolate today consists of cocoa butter, sugar, milk and a small quantity of cacao. In contrast, dark chocolate has much larger levels of healthful cacao, as well as less milk and sugar. Not all dark chocolate is created equal - solid cocoa content ranges from 47% (sweet dark) to 70%, 75%, or even above 90% for highly dark chocolate – so always check the cocoa content, as the higher the percentage of cocoa, the higher level of nutrients the chocolate is likely to deliver.

Let’s have a closer look at some of the beneficial nutrients found in dark chocolate:

Cocoa is rich in antioxidant compounds, which can protect against oxidative damage. Free radicals are a normal by-product of cell processes in the body, and can be created in response to pollution, toxins, poor nutrition, UV exposure and other external factors. Our body has a natural antioxidant defence system, but this can become overwhelmed, allowing free radicals to cause damage to cells, which is often at the heart of chronic disease, such as cardiovascular and cognitive conditions. Including foods with a high level of antioxidants can help to protect against damage – and dark chocolate is one such food. 

Polyphenols –

The cocoa bean is one of the best-known sources of dietary polyphenols, containing more phenolic antioxidants than most other foods. Polyphenols are phytonutrients that are thought to protect against oxidative damage and support anti-inflammatory pathways. They can also support gut health through their prebiotic action. 

Flavanols –

Cocoa is a particularly rich source of this type of polyphenol, with cocoa powder and dark chocolate having a higher antioxidant capacity than “super fruits” such as blueberry, acai berry and pomegranate. It is important to note that when it comes to antioxidants, not all chocolate is created equal, and dark chocolate has been shown to have a flavanol content five times higher than that of milk chocolate. Flavanols are known for their antioxidant and cardioprotective properties.

Minerals -

Dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa is also packed full of important minerals including iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and phosphorus. These minerals are used to support essential functions such as immunity, can help to keep your bones and teeth healthy and even contribute to a better night’s better sleep.

So, the more chocolate I eat, the better?

Alas, no. Although, as we have seen, dark chocolate can provide several wonderfully healthful nutrients, and can even enhance mood, it is important to remember that dark chocolate does still contain sugar, so it is best eaten in moderation, as part of a healthy diet. When compared to milk and white chocolate, dark chocolate has a far lower glycaemic load, and is likely to have less of an impact on your blood glucose levels – but it is still important not to overindulge.

Portions of 20-30g have been recommended as optimal to provide a great level of phytonutrients but avoiding high levels of sugar. Dark chocolate has a bitter taste, which helps to avoid overeating – a little goes a long way. If you’re a milk chocolate eater, you might find dark chocolate bitter at first, but if you start with a lower cocoa content and then gradually build up to 70% or higher – you will find that your tastebuds adjust to the new flavour, and you will be helping to balance your blood sugar levels, which could help to reduce your cravings for sweet things.  

Healthy Dark Chocolate Recipe 

Why not try making these healthy and delicious energy balls when you fancy a chocolaty treat? They use raw cacao, which is less processed than standard cocoa, contains no added sugar and is densely packed with powerful nutrients such as flavonoids, magnesium and iron. Combined with almonds; nutritional powerhouses that give you healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, as well as dates; a great source of natural sweetness, fibre and a range of vitamins and minerals, these balls are a quick, healthy and delicious chocolate treat. 

Raw Cacao and Coconut Energy Balls 

You will need:

  • ½ cup almonds
  • 2 cups pitted dates
  • 1 ½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 3 tbsp raw cacao powder
  1.  In a blender, combine almonds, dates and 1 cup of the coconut. Pulse until combined (you will need to scrape down the sides)
  2. Add cacao powder and continue blending until you have a thick dough (if it is too crumbly, gradually add a little water until the dough is thick and smooth)
  3. Transfer your dough to a mixing bowl and roll into 12 small balls
  4. Spread the remaining coconut out on a large plate, and roll each ball in the coconut until covered completely
  5. Refrigerate for at least an hour, or until firm
  6. Enjoy!

These energy balls can be kept covered in the fridge for 3-4 days, or frozen (if they last that long!)

So, in summary – good quality, minimally processed dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa (the higher the better!) eaten in moderation can give you many health benefits – but best to avoid overindulging in milk and white chocolate, which are much higher in sugar, and lower in beneficial nutrients. Always check the label to ensure your chocolate has a higher cocoa content and minimal refined sugar, artificial sweeteners or other additives.

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