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

Yes, 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. This article inspired me to go out tomorrow and pick up some cacao powder and coconut milk and make some hot chocolate.

    Might even sprinkle some cinnamon on it!

    Chris wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  2. It’s a pretty good source of magnesium…

    I’m one of the biggest addicts in the world (3-4 tablespoons a day of raw cocoa powder)…

    But what about mycotoxins? What about it being a cannabinoid and possibly neurotoxic?

    Why is Sally Fallon of WAPF so against it?

    gwhitney wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  3. http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/living-with-phytic-acid

    “Phytates in food” Paragraph 3, sentence 3

    MJV wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  4. Really? People would complain about eating chocolate?? Good thing my favorite chocolate is DARK CHOCOLATE! I will look forward to my everyday treat :)

    PrimalZombie wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  5. Why is it we know so much about chocolate but seem to be lost when it comes to fats and carbs? Are scientists really spending more time on determining whether chocolate is good for us?

    shannon wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  6. Re:cocoa
    Twice a day I drink 100% pure cocoa (not dutched) with organic coffee from Papua New Guinea (Mt. Hagen–marketed by a German co. and sold in organic stores-also with beneficial polyphenols)- and 1Tbs. pure unprocessed coconut oil and 1 tbs. coconut sap. In 1 hour my blood pressure is very much lower. Since eating a paleo diet-with some fruit and veg carbs., bone broth, and this drink I became so healthy that my bp meds were reduced to almost nothing and the compounded t3, t4 I take for hypothyroidism had to be greatly lowered because the diet made the meds work much better as well as the thyroid working much better. Thank you hippoocrates (“Let food be thy ,medicine”)

    Marilyn wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  7. Best dark chocolate I have ever tasted was on my recent trip to the USA- Mast Brothers Chocolate, particularly ‘Brooklyn Blend’ (around 72%). Apart from the incredibly complex depth of flavor, I was impressed by the ingredient list: cocao, cane sugar. I have not seen a chocolate of that quality that involves only TWO ingredients
    Check out their website for their chocolate procuring and making adventures
    http://mastbrothers.com/
    This is one very cool small business.
    I just wish they delivered to Australia!!!!

    Yvette wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. Too bad chocolate is the one food I’m allergic to…

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

    Olav wrote on February 24th, 2012
  20. 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
  21. My Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs are awesome… followed by Makers Mark whisky.

    Michael Maier wrote on February 24th, 2012
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. 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
  25. 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
  26. 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
  27. Dark chocolate and red wine – – a match made in heaven.

    diane nestor wrote on February 28th, 2012

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