Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Feb

Why You Should Eat and Drink High-Cacao Dark Chocolate

dark chocolateYes, I know, I know. That title isn’t exactly comforting. I hate giving you guys bad news, seeing as how you make this website possible, and I hate making unpopular recommendations like “eat more butter” or “get some sun” or “drink a glass of red wine,” but I have to stick to the truth here, even if it hurts. And the truth is that you should probably be eating dark chocolate on a semi-regular basis because the stuff is pretty dang good for you. Before you log out, never to return again, give me a minute to explain myself:

You were kids once. Your parents probably forced you to finish your overcooked, mushy, bland veggies or wash your hands and finish your homework – or some other routine unpleasantry – “for your own good,” and that’s what I’m doing here. Dark chocolate is healthy. It may be awful, terrible, and disgusting, but it contains some really good things that have some remarkable effects on various markers of health. So, yeah, eat your chocolate. Finish your raw cacao powder. Choke down that homemade hot chocolate. Hold your noses if you have to, but get it down and done.

I’m kidding, of course. There’s no arm twisting required when it comes to chocolate. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the Primal community can suck down some high quality dark chocolate. Don’t think I didn’t see how quickly that chocolate disappeared at last year’s PrimalCon. And why wouldn’t it? Dark chocolate’s great, the perfect storm of flavor, flavonoids, and fat. It tastes really good, comes loaded with polyphenols, and cocoa butter is a great source of saturated and monounsaturated fat. High-cacao dark chocolate, then, is quite literally a healthy candy bar. What’s not to love?

I’ve discussed my favorite dark chocolate in the past. I’ve even provided chocolate-choosing tips. But until today, I’ve never really explained why we should be including high-cacao dark chocolate in our diets. I’ve never explicitly outlined the myriad health benefits that cacao offers. Well, let’s get to it, shall we?

Dark chocolate contains healthy fats.

Cocoa butter, which is extracted from the cacao bean and incorporated into most reputable dark chocolate bars, is mostly monounsaturated and saturated fat, with very little polyunsaturated fat. And because most of that saturated fat is stearic acid, widely known for having neutral effects on LDL, even avowed lipophobes can happily and heartily gobble up cacao fat.

Dark chocolate contains lots of polyphenols, particularly flavanols.

When it comes to polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity, cacao trounces the “superfruits” acai, pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry and whatever else your annoying friend who always falls for multilevel marketing schemes is hawking this week. The most studied polyphenol in cacao is epicatechin, a flavanol. Although last week’s post on the benefits of polyphenol consumption centered on pigment-derived antioxidants, cacao’s polyphenols are also quite potent and potentially healthful.

What happens when the rubber hits the road, though? Or, somewhat more literally, what happens when the square of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate melts on the tongue, is swallowed, digested, and incorporated into the body? What are the actual health benefits of consuming high-cacao content dark chocolate?

Dark chocolate and blood pressure.

Epidemiological studies pretty consistently show that dark chocolate consumption is related to lower blood pressure readings. In Jordan, among Kuna Indians living in Panama, among pregnant women, and among elderly Dutch, this holds true. That’s all well and good, but it’s just an association. We need controlled studies:

One found that fifteen days of eating dark chocolate, but not white chocolate, lowered blood pressure (and improved insulin sensitivity) in healthy subjects. The main difference between white and dark chocolate is the polyphenol content; both types contain cocoa fat. Cocoa consumption also improved arterial flow in smokers.

Some studies suggest that the flavonoids are key. In one, flavanol-rich dark chocolate consumption improved endothelial function while increasing plasma levels of flavanols (which indicates the flavanols had something to do with it). Another study used flavanol-rich cocoa to increase nitric oxide production in healthy humans, thus inducing vasodilation and improving endothelial function. In another, the highest dose of cacao flavanoids caused the biggest drop in blood pressure. Still another found that while dark chocolate did not reduce blood pressure, improve lipids, nor reduce oxidative stress, it did improve coronary circulation.

Or maybe it’s the soluble fiber. In “spontaneously hypertensive” rats, cacao-derived soluble fiber lowered blood pressure, perhaps by reducing weight gain.

It’s probably both, in my opinion, although the polyphenols undoubtedly contribute more to the cause than the five grams or so of soluble fiber you’ll get in the average serving of dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate and cardiovascular disease.

You’ve heard of the cholesterol-fed rabbit; how about the cocoa-fed rabbit? If the former is an effective vehicle to study the negative effects of poor lipid clearance, the latter is a testament to the inhibitory effects of cocoa polyphenols on lipid peroxidation. We also have similar findings in rodents. Feeding hypercholesterolemic and normocholesterolemic rats polyphenol-rich “cocoa fiber” (defatted, sugar-free chocolate, basically) reduced markers of lipid peroxidation in both groups (PDF). It also seems to work quite well in test tubes.

In humans, both with normal and elevated cholesterol levels, eating cocoa powder mixed with hot water lowered oxidized LDL and ApoB (LDL particle number, which, if you remember my post on lipid panels, you want to lower) counts while increasing HDL. All three doses of high-flavanol cocoa powder – 13, 19.5, and 26 g/day – proved beneficial. If you’re wondering, 26 grams of powder is about a quarter cup. It also works if you drink it with milk (and no, Hershey’s syrup doesn’t work the same).

Given the effects of chocolate on lipid peroxidation, we can probably surmise that it will also lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. And indeed, epidemiological studies suggest that this is the case. In a sample of over 2200 patients (PDF), chocolate consumption was inversely associated with progression of atherosclerotic plaque (determined by calcium scoring). What’s incredible is that the association held for chocolate in general, and I don’t think it’s likely that everyone was consuming 100% raw cacao powder brimming with polyphenols. A study from this year from the same group got similar results: chocolate consumption was inversely associated with prevalent cardiovascular disease.

While most cacao research focuses on vascular function and heart disease risk, there are other, less intensively-studied benefits. Here are a few of them:

Dark chocolate and insulin resistance.

For fifteen days, hypertensive, glucose-intolerant patients received either 100 daily grams of high-polyphenol dark chocolate or 100 daily grams of zero-polyphenol white chocolate. Diets were isocaloric, and nothing differed between the groups besides the type of chocolate. Dark chocolate improved beta cell function, lowered blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved endothelial function, while white chocolate did none of those things.

Dark chocolate and fatty liver.

Rats with fatty liver evince higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, but cocoa supplementation partially attenuated these pathological changes – even in choline-deficient rats. While cocoa wasn’t enough to fully resolve fatty liver, the researchers concluded that cocoa may be of therapeutic benefit in “less severe” forms of fatty liver.

Dark chocolate and UV damage.

Resistance to UV damage is commonly measured by MED – minimal erythema dose. A higher MED means greater resistance to UV rays, while a lower MED indicates lower resistance. High MED, good. Low MED, bad. One study found that feeding high levels of dark chocolate to healthy people over twelve weeks doubled their MED; feeding low levels of dark chocolate had no effect on the MED.

Similarly, another study found that a high-flavanol-from-cacao group had greater resistance to a given UV dosage than a low-flavanol-from-cacao group (who actually saw no benefit at all) over a six and twelve-week period.

Those interested in a fairly comprehensive compendium of chocolate research can check it out here. I tried to stick to in vivo research, but there’s more theoretical stuff out there too.

Seeing as how most of chocolate’s benefits stem from the polyphenol content, and most of the studies that saw large effects used “high-flavanol” dark chocolate, you should be gunning for chocolate with high polyphenol counts. Dutch processed, or alkalized, chocolate lightens the color, removes some of the bitter compounds, and gives it a milder taste. Awesome for Hershey’s Kisses, but awful for the flavanol content. Those “bitter compounds,” you see, are the flavanols. Without the bitterness (which I think of as complexity), you’re missing most of the beneficial polyphenols. It might taste good, but it won’t perform all of the aforementioned physiological tasks. To quantify the extent of the degradation, check out the results of this study on the flavanol contents of cacao powders subjected to various degrees of alkalization:

  • Natural – 34.6 mg/g
  • Lightly processed – 13.8 mg/g
  • Medium processed – 7.8 mg/g
  • Heavily processed – 3.9 mg/g

Once you’ve got a lead on some good chocolate with high cacao and lower sugar levels, eat a few squares a sitting. Exercise restraint, however, as it is still candy and it shouldn’t make up a large block of calories. Treat it like a condiment, or even a medicinal adjunct to an otherwise solid diet. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, avoid chocolate too close to bedtime.

If you get your hands on some high quality cacao powder (raw – which is actually fermented – or roasted, but never Dutch processed), try making coconut cacao milk. Mix half a (BPA-free) can or carton of coconut milk with a couple tablespoons of cacao powder. Heat on the stove until almost simmering. Add sweetener to taste and, if you’re adventurous, a bit of cayenne, cinnamon, and turmeric. Enjoy!

Anyway, that’s it for today. I think I’ve presented the case for high-cacao dark chocolate – not that you were exactly a tough crowd or anything! Thanks for reading and be sure to give your thoughts – including quality sources and recommended methods of ingestion – in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. For a pure, healthy chocolate drink try Crio Bru. Crio Bru is a new, revolutionary, one-of-a-kind product – a chocolate drink that is brewed as one would brew coffee in a coffee maker, french press or other brewing equipment. By using only premium cocoa beans, sun drying, roasting, then milling them into a fine cocoa ground the brewed drink retains all of the original, natural health benefits of the cocoa bean itself.

    Dick wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  2. Dark chocolate covered raisins, a handfull at a time!

    WW Rutland wrote on February 23rd, 2012
    • The organic ones from Nuts.com are my favorite!!!

      primalblonde wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  3. Thank you for all the great ideas!! After reading here last night I mixed dark cocoa pwd, coconut oil and honey together, made balls and chilled. we ate them with fresh made organic whipped cream.. OMG! hubby and I felt like we were on our honeymoon. so simple. so delicious!

    Kari wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  4. Thanks for the great post Mark. One problem that I find with most chocolate bars (and that has been mentioned in this thread) is that they contain the dreaded soy lecithin.

    As a primal person, I cannot justify putting this substance into my body. What is the best course of action here? Do the health benefits of dark chocolate cancel out the deleterious effects of the SL? I would tend to think not. Does anyone know of a good place to find dark chocolate that does not contain this product?

    Bartman wrote on February 23rd, 2012
    • Keep checking labels – there are a couple of brands out there that don’t have soy lechitin in them.

      Heather wrote on February 25th, 2012
  5. My mid wife gave me a bar of “stirs the soul” chocolate. 83% cacao 99.7% raw, and organic. I eat a square every few days, sounds like I better up it a bit! I am in oregon and this is a local Portland artisan product so i dont know how avaliable it is in the real world.Thanks Mark for all you do, every time I read the blog I get so excited.

    Queenbolete wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  6. Great post…I like to mix cocoa powder with a banana and it makes a great snack. It is a lot more healthy than I thought.

    Stan Starsky wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  7. I’m gearing up to try some dark chocolate covered bacon. Anyone have any success with this? I’m thinking to slow bake some applewood smoked bacon (the stuff with no preservatives), cut it into pieces and then dip the pieces in the melted chocolate. I’ve used Lindt 90% for chocolate projects and think I’ll try it again.

    maly wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  8. Love doing 100% Dark chocolate melted, Coconut oil, some coconut shaving with a bit of almond butter mixed together….. Tad bit of a treat

    primalnewb wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  9. I eat cheese only rarely, but when I do, some properly shaved parmigiano reggiano paired with a few pieces of 80%+ dark gives one that great salt + hint of sweet experience. Mmmm. I think I’ll be having some tonight…

    Eric Ullman wrote on February 23rd, 2012
  10. Mark,

    I make my own “chocolate” using Nativa Caco powder and coconut oil (virgin, unrefined). No cooking required I just freeze the bon bons for at least 20 minutes. Do you believe you get the same benefits from the powder?

    Brynda Gutierrez wrote on February 24th, 2012
  11. Too bad chocolate is the one food I’m allergic to…

    Decaf Debi wrote on February 24th, 2012
  12. Is eating 1 bar a day (150 g) waaaaaaay too much? I have high metabolism.

    Olav wrote on February 24th, 2012
  13. I was told many years ago that dark Chocolate is a highly concentrated source of caffeine and would aggravate my tinnitus, any comments on that?

    Gerry Osborne wrote on February 24th, 2012
    • I get tinnitus from eating chocolate. The more I eat, the louder the ringing. In fact, my ears will actually hurt if I eat enough chocolate at one time.

      I say try it and see. The aggravation won’t be permanent. At least, it isn’t for me.

      Sharon wrote on February 25th, 2012
  14. My Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs are awesome… followed by Makers Mark whisky.

    Michael Maier wrote on February 24th, 2012
  15. Here’s a go-to dessert winner:

    Mix a can of coconut milk with some cocoa powder in a pot, slowly heat it up.

    While that’s going on, find a pyrex baking dish or similar, and fill the bottom with some frozen fruit. I just get a bag of frozen mango, or blueberries etc.

    When the mixture is pretty warm, add a packet of gelatin. Once just simmering, pour over the frozen fruit, cover, and stick it in the fridge.

    Couple hours later – amazing treat.

    Ben wrote on February 25th, 2012
  16. Can’t wait to make the hot coconut milk and cacao drink. Maybe my son will like it as he was addicted to chocolate milk for a while.

    PaleoDentist wrote on February 26th, 2012
  17. But what about the carcinogen acrylamide that’s found in cocoa powder and chocolate?

    http://voices.yahoo.com/acrylamide-chocolate-another-10217911.html?cat=5

    mike wrote on February 27th, 2012
  18. I can’t believe how fast I adapted to eating baking chocolate to the point of preferring it.

    The grocery store Ghiradelli is good, but the Schaffen-Berger 99% – the other 1% is vanilla is amazing.

    Andrea Richards wrote on February 27th, 2012
  19. I’m not really into chocolate, but would use it as a supplement more or less. What would be recommended daily dosage for an athlete that works out 5-6 times a week?

    Alper wrote on February 28th, 2012
  20. Dark chocolate and red wine – – a match made in heaven.

    diane nestor wrote on February 28th, 2012
  21. To me, dark chocolate is not worth the trouble. Although it has nutrients, it is extremely palatable/rewarding, making it very easy to overeat. For this, I tend to avoid it.

    D wrote on March 1st, 2012
  22. Do the benefits outweigh the fact that most cocoa contains mercury?

    Brian Kozmo wrote on March 2nd, 2012
  23. Lindt 99% all the way.

    Joseph Tripp wrote on March 2nd, 2012
    • I don’t understand why nobody commented on the high phytate level in cocoa powder. Is it somehow removed in processing?

      Brad wrote on March 7th, 2012
  24. Commercial processing destroy most of the antioxidants. So it really doesn’t matter what the percentage. You need a chocolate that utilizes cold-press technology. The only way you know you are getting the antioxidants and health benefits you are looking for is to find a product that certifies the amount of antioxidants and flavonoids on the finished product itself. There is a great article on the difference between “good” chocolate and “bad” chocolate at cocoa101.com.

    Diana McCalla wrote on March 7th, 2012
  25. What’s the point of using raw cacao for the drink you recommend at the end, if you’re going to heat it?

    Teresa wrote on March 11th, 2012
  26. Personally i recomand a homemade chocolate. Here is the way how to make healthy one in 15 minutes – http://www.foodforgoodmood.com/2012/03/15/chocolate-of-mine-minerals/

    Barbra89 wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  27. I just picked up some 70% Green & Black’s at my local market. They also carry the 85% but the 70% was on sale. Great stuff. I’ve also gotten a cayenne and cherry bar at Whole Foods. Not sure about the sugar content or percent on that one…but Mmmmmm

    Mandipants wrote on March 27th, 2012
  28. What about the sugar content in dark chocolate? I know it’s minimal if u have just a square or 2 but I have been told that any sugar- if not in fruit- is bad for us???

    BJ wrote on March 28th, 2012
  29. I mix Cadbury’s Bourneville cocoa powder with Stevia and yoghurt – yummy!!

    Barbs wrote on March 28th, 2012
  30. I think cacao is tasty but have read about dangerous long term side effects from eating it frequently. These side effects have to do with the adrenal glands, nervous system, and overstimulation of the heart/other organs. Personally, it can give me sharp headaches and insomia or sleep disruption. I don’t plan on repurchasnig it and will stick to plain cocoa.

    EC wrote on April 1st, 2012
  31. Num num

    Gary Deagle wrote on April 10th, 2012
  32. Not the % is leading for a good chocolate only the amount of flavonoid content. I eat a chocolate that has a minimum content >800 mg flavonols at 10 gram square.

    I eat 10 to 20 gram a day
    and can make 18 to 20 hours a day because i regenerate faster with the best nutrition in this world chocolate !

    have a nice day

    Peter Langelaar
    Groesbeek

    Peter Langelaar wrote on April 16th, 2012
  33. Great post. I really appreciated all of your scientific reference and support for all of the claims you were explaining. It is quite a pet peeve of mine when bloggers make a claim about some product but do not reference where they got that information. Without a reference I have to assume something is made up.

    Megan Jones wrote on April 19th, 2012
  34. I love dark chocolate! I introduced it into my diet recently and it really suppresses your appetite.

    Arusa wrote on May 7th, 2012
  35. I play a game with my Lindt 85% swiss thins where I dip them in my coffee(where there is a little bit of milk and cinnamon) to the point where they’re ABOUT to melt and quickly put them in my mouth.
    They’d better have this in heaven.

    Ro wrote on June 2nd, 2012
  36. Sorry to rain on everyone’s parade here, but has anyone had problems with constipation once they started eating dark chocolate? I’m hoping that the chocolate is not the culprit because I would hate to give up my daily dose and all its benefits!

    Lynn wrote on June 2nd, 2012
  37. You need a high antioxidant, high flavonol content chocolate to get the results found in the clinical studies. There is only one manufacturer I know that actually has the amount of antioxidants, as well as the amount of flavonoids, certified by an independent testing lab. They actually have recently been granted the patent and trademark rights to the words “healthy chocolate”. All their products can be researched at cocoa101.com. The 80 to 90 per cent dark chocolate is still candy and utilizes commercial processing methods that destroy most of the antioxidants. If the antioxidants are not certified, it probably has very few – which is why they say you “can’t have too much”. You have to eat so much to get the benefits all the sugar will negate any good.

    Diana McCalla wrote on June 27th, 2012
    • I love drinking hot chocolate with cinnamon. Hot water + 1 tsp cocoa powder + less than 1/2 tsp cinnamon powder. I mix them with a hand-blender and here is my hot drink! :)

      Loukia Maria wrote on September 12th, 2012
  38. I like my 85% cocoa Green Black’s , organic, fair trade and full of antioxidants! I ate 100 grams in a few hours and don’t even feel guilty about it.

    Now I don’t know where do I get 100 % cocoa dark chocolate, anyone?

    Stefani wrote on September 21st, 2012
    • You can get 100% cacao in the baking section at Kroger or Walmart…either Bakers or Ghirardelli 100% natural cacao. Pure chocolate. I have 1 oz. daily. It’s an acquired taste but no sugar or other additives whatsoever! You can also find pure 100% unsweetened powdered cocoa in this same baking section in the grocery/Walmart for making drinks. Hershey and Ghirardelli make good ones.

      Kelly wrote on September 22nd, 2012
  39. Mark, should we avoid soy lecithin in chocolate? I’ve noticed that pretty much all bars have soy in them.

    Anon wrote on September 22nd, 2012
  40. Being vegan I don’t eat or drink dairy products, so that means I wouldn’t have milk chocolate anyway. But when people say to me – so being vegan don’t you miss chocolate? I say, the best chocolate out there has no milk! And I think it’s true – dark chocolate is the best. I think it’s the way chocolate is meant to be enjoyed. Plus it’s a lot better for you as Mark here says. Here in Australia I like to eat Whittaker’s, Haigh’s or Coco-Black’s. All good quality.

    Tim wrote on October 1st, 2012

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