According to the Aztecs, the great feathered serpent god of wisdom and creation known as Quetzalcoatl introduced the cocoa bean to mankind. It’s likelier that it originated in the Amazon rainforest and wound its way north to Mesoamerica, whose inhabitants figured out they could domesticate, ferment, roast, crush, and mix cocoa with water, chilies, and spices to produce a bitter, intoxicating drink. It then took a boat across the Atlantic, learning Spanish along the way. Europe wasn’t sure what to make of the bitterness until someone spilled a little sugar into the drink. Cocoa quickly swept across the continent, giving rise to large corporations that persist to this day, like Cadbury, Nestle, Hershey, and Lindt.
Today, chocolate is everywhere. It’s part of the fabric of human experience.
Why’s it so good?
Let’s start with…
The Health Benefits
Chocolate Contains Healthy Fats
Cocoa butter is mostly monounsaturated and saturated fat, with very little polyunsaturated fat. And because most of that saturated fat is stearic acid, which turns into oleic acid in the body and is well known for having neutral effects on LDL, even avowed lipophobes can happily and heartily gobble up cocoa fat.
Flavanols are an important class of polyphenols, the phytonutrients that have beneficial effects on oxidative stress, inflammation, and help produce beneficial hormetic stress responses. When it comes to polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity, cocoa trounces the “superfruits” acai, pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry and almost everything else. The most studied polyphenol in chocolate is epicatechin, a flavanol.
Dark Chocolate and Endothelial Health/Blood Pressure
Controlled trials suggest this observation is probably causation:
Cocoa consumption improved arterial flow in smokers. That’s not too surprising, as smokers have higher oxidative loads and high-polyphenol foods help fight oxidative stress. What’s really fascinating is the study that found 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, so cocoa fat isn’t enough to improve blood pressure.
In another study, 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, which increased vasodilation and improved endothelial function. In another, the highest dose of cocoa 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.
In humans, both with normal and elevated cholesterol levels, eating cocoa powder mixed with hot water lowered oxidized LDL and ApoB (a good barometer for LDL particle number) 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.
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. 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 cardiovascular disease.
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. Again, this indicates it’s the polyphenols, not just the cocoa butter.
Dark Chocolate and Fatty Liver
As mentioned earlier, cocoa butter is hepatoprotective in the context of ethanol consumption. These benefits seem to extend to other areas of liver health.
One study found that feeding high levels of dark chocolate to healthy people over twelve weeks doubled their MED, or resistance to UV damage; feeding low levels of dark chocolate had no effect on the MED.
Similarly, another study found that a people who ate high levels of cocoa flavanols had greater resistance to a given UV dosage than a low-flavanol group over a six and twelve-week period.
Dark Chocolate and Aging
It seems like every time you read about the dietary habits of a centenarian, they’re big chocolate lovers. That may not be a fluke, as chocolate has been shown to improve many aspects of the aging process.
It’s pretty clear that the older you are, the more chocolate you should eat. I’m certainly operating under that assumption.
How Chocolate Is Made
What are we talking about when we talk about chocolate? How’s it made?
After the cocoa bean is scooped out from its pod, it sits in piles for about a week to cure. This is heap fermentation—the first step in cocoa processing. During heap fermentation, yeasts degrade the mucilaginous pulp that surrounds the beans into ethanol, bacteria turn the ethanol into acetic acid and carbon dioxide, and this raises the temperature enough to eventually “kill” the cocoa bean. Now dead with its cell walls breaking down, the bean experiences chemical reactions that develop flavor and color. Fermentation also reduces bitter compounds and phytic acid.
Then the bean is dried for a week or two, then roasted, then pulverized to form nibs. Sometimes that process is flipped—they pulverize the dry bean into nibs and then roast the nibs. The nibs are ground into a paste called cocoa liquor or chocolate liquor, which is combined with sugar, vanilla, and other ingredients to form the actual chocolate. This is also the point at which they make cocoa powder by pressing the liquor and extracting the cocoa butter.
They’ll further refine the cocoa, trying to reach the point at which the human tongue won’t perceive individual particles. Once it’s smooth, they’ll “conch” the chocolate, which involves mixing and aerating the stuff at high temperatures to improve texture and mouthfeel. Soy lecithin improves emulsification and cuts down on the amount of conching required.
Each step of the processing, um, process reduces the flavanol content of the chocolate. This means the rawer the chocolate, the higher the flavanol content. But except for the explicitly raw bars, almost every finished chocolate bar undergoes fermentation, roasting, and conching. There’s really no way around it. And even the “raw” chocolate probably isn’t even raw. And if it were, is that even desirable? Fermentation and roasting all reduce phytic acid content, after all. Even the ancient Mesoamericans roasted their cocoa beans before eating or drinking them. And it’s not clear if “more polyphenols” are always desirable.
Besides, all those chocolate researchers aren’t using obscure cacao products. They’re not using raw unfermented cacao beans handpicked by Aztec elders. They’re using commercially-available cocoa products subjected to significant processing, like 85% dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder. And they still work great and produce excellent benefits.
Powder: There are different powders out there. I won’t discuss pre-mixed sugary hot cocoa powders; avoid them.
Raw cocoa powder comes from dried, fermented, unroasted beans. As the beans haven’t been roasted to extract all the cocoa butter, some residual fat remains.
Roasted cocoa powder comes from fermented, roasted beans. This tends to be lower in fat, as the roasting process allows greater extraction of cocoa butter.
Nibs: Nibs are like chocolate gravel, unsweetened. You can add them to smoothies, eat whole, or grind down to make your own cocoa liquor.
Liquor or mass: Cocoa liquor/mass is ground up cocoa nibs/beans in solid or semi-solid form. It’s about equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter. You can eat this straight up like a maniac or use it to make your own chocolate.
Bars/chips: The finished product. The percentage of cocoa in a bar (100%, 85%, 70%, etc) indicates the amount of cocoa mass and butter. An 85% chocolate bar is 85% cocoa mass and cocoa butter, 15% other stuff like lecithin, sugar, and flavorings.
How to Eat
There’s the obvious way: Place in mouth and chew. I like to go a square at a time, and really just let it sit on my tongue, slowly melt, and envelop my taste buds. This way, chocolate lasts longer and you need less of it to get the desired effect.
You can also get creative in the kitchen.
Stu Can’t Stop Bark: Stu is my writing partner and buddy Brad Kearns’ dog, and Stu can’t stop barking once he gets going. Stu Can’t Stop Bark is Brad’s edible, polyphenol-rich homage to Stu.
Take a pound of 80%+ chocolate and break it up into pieces. Add half to a double boiler or glass bowl set above a boiling pot.
As chocolate melts, add 3 tablespoons of coconut oil. Stir to combine.
Add two cups of chopped macadamias or other nuts to a large mixing bowl along with the rest of the chocolate.
When chocolate/oil mixture is completely melted, pour it into the mixing bowl. Stir until everything is melted and evenly distributed. Really coat those nuts.
Spread half the mixture evenly into a 15 x 10 inch glass baking pan. Drizzle three tablespoons of almond butter across the top. Optional: sprinkle coconut flakes or coconut butter across the top.
Spread the rest of the mixture across the top. Sprinkle sea salt. Optional: sprinkle coconut flakes or coconut butter across the top.
Refrigerate until solidified. Remove from pan, cut into squares with large chef’s knife. Keep refrigerated or frozen until ready to eat (immediately).
Do not give Stu, or any other dog, Stu Can’t Stop Bark. They can’t process the theobromine in the dark chocolate. To a dog, chocolate bark is way worse than a bite.
Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Hearts: Just posted earlier today. Go read it and make it.
Spiced Cocoa: Heat water, coconut milk, regular milk, nut milk or a blend of some of them and whisk in cocoa powder, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, and sweetener if desired. Top with real whipped cream (no sugar needed).
I’ll sometimes do a tablespoon of powder in my coffee, blended.
Next time you make chili, throw a bar of 85% dark chocolate in.
How to Choose Chocolate
Stick with dark chocolate.
Milk chocolate is, for all intents and purposes, not a health food. The milk and the extra sugar crowd out the cocoa. Some chocolatiers are starting to make milk chocolate with a greater percentage of cocoa content, which is an improvement—but you’re still left with the huge sugar dose milk chocolate inevitably provides. There is one company making chocolate (both dark and milk) sweetened with erythritol and stevia and a large dose of prebiotic inulin that tastes great and has just a few grams of digestible carbs per bar; I’ll grab one of their salted milk chocolate bars when I see it.
Similar story with white chocolate. It’s got the cocoa butter but no cocoa flavanols. Not a health food.
I won’t say “never eat white or milk chocolate!” Just don’t make them a health staple.
When I’m talking about chocolate, I’m talking about dark chocolate.
Aim for 85% cocoa content or above. You can still enjoy 72% cocoa chocolate. I won’t throw you out of the tribe just because you eat 66%. But 85% cocoa chocolate is really that sweet spot when good things start to accumulate. The sugar content becomes negligible. The fat and fiber go up. The cocoa flavanols start gathering force. And, if you can learn to appreciate it, the flavor is unmatched. Try your best to develop the taste.
The first ingredient should be cocoa. Cocoa (or cacao) bean, cocoa mass, cocoa liquor, cocoa powder are all acceptable. If “milk” or “sugar” or anything else comes first in the ingredient list, it’s not high-quality chocolate.
Avoid Dutch process cocoa. The Dutch process alkalizes cocoa, reducing the acidity and bitterness but also the bitter flavanols responsible for many of its health benefits. There are a few potential “tells” if you don’t know the Dutching status of your chocolate.
Dutch process cocoa will have a little residual sodium (from the alkalizing agent sodium carbonate) in the nutrition facts.
Dutch process cocoa will be darker in color and have a richer “classic” chocolate flavor.
Un-Dutched cocoa will be lighter in color and fruitier in flavor.
Look for Fair Trade chocolate. Cocoa production has a long and storied history with slave and child labor, and some of that continues to this day, particularly in West African countries—where most of the world’s chocolate originates. Sticking with Fair Trade chocolate helps avoid this ethical issue, increasing the chances that the people who grow, harvest, and produce your chocolate are adults receiving fair compensation.
What to Eat
There are thousands of boutique chocolates out there. Most are probably good, so eat what you like. Some of my preferred brands and products:
Santa Barbara Chocolate Company: These guys sponsored PrimalCon from the very beginning, and their awesome chocolate they provided was, for many people, the highlight of the experience. I still remember Brad walking around with a big sack of their dark chocolate and being surrounded by a Vibram-clad mob.
Trader Joe’s: The Montezuma 100% chocolate bar is the smoothest 100% cocoa bar I’ve ever had. You can actually eat this straight up and enjoy it.
Green and Black’s: Their 85% bar is widely available and still one of the best I’ve had.
What About Toxicity Concerns?
What about heavy metal toxicity? A recent report from As You Sow, a consumer advocacy group, claims to have found dangerously high levels of cadmium and lead in many leading chocolate brands.
Cocoa is often grown in volcanic soils which are relatively high in lead and cadmium, especially in Latin America. Cocoa trees are especially good at absorbing lead and cadmium from the soil and distributing it throughout the beans. Those metals persist throughout processing and wind up in the finished product, albeit, according to this study, at relatively low levels.
I’m not sure how important this is. After all, the benefits of chocolate are clear and well-studied. It seems to improve health and longevity, not curtail it. And some chocolate experts express skepticism at the reports, suggesting that the assays used to determine the heavy metal levels in chocolate are superficial and not definitive, criticizing the refusal of the advocacy group to publish their specific results, and pointing out that previous studies into lead and cadmium levels in cocoa found low levels. At any rate, many Primal foods and spices, like garlic, ginger, onions, green tea, as well as probiotics, spirulina, and chlorella have all been shown to reduce lead and cadmium absorption and toxicity.
Chocolate is good for you, but it’s still candy. I consider it to be a supplemental food, a medicinal ingredient to be used regularly but sparingly. Don’t obtain a significant amount of calories from chocolate. If the heavy metal issue does turn out to be a significant problem, treating chocolate as a supplement will mitigate the consequences.
That’s it for today, folks. Now go eat some chocolate!
What’s your favorite chocolate brand, type, or mode of ingestion? Got any great recipes? Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.