Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate: Our Dietitian’s Favorite Dessert

First things first, there’s no need to feel guilty about satisfying your sweet tooth. Though sugar gets a bad rap, all of us can include a bit of sweetness in our day without sacrificing health. Dark chocolate may taste like a decadent indulgence, but it boasts some science-backed health benefits that make it our go-to pick for an easy, satisfying sweet treat.

How Dark Chocolate is Made

Chocolate grows on trees, literally. Cacao trees grow in regions close to the equator, and thrive in climates that are hot and tropical. Cacao trees produce long pods that contain the cacao seeds (or beans). To turn raw cacao beans into cocoa beans, the cacao beans are fermented, dried and roasted. Cacao nibs are separated from the bean shells and ground into a “cocoa mass” or cocoa liquor (that is solid at room temperature). To make dark chocolate, the nibs are simply combined with more cocoa butter and a touch of sweetener. Dark chocolate comes in a range of “darkness,” depending on what percentage of the final product is cocoa mass (cocoa, cocoa butter or cocoa powder) and typically ranges from 40% to over 80%. In the U.S. there is no specific cut-off for dark chocolate, while in Europe the cut-off is 35%.
 
dark chocolate melted

 

The Difference between Dark and Milk Chocolate

The only official difference between dark and milk chocolate is the addition of -- you guessed it -- milk! Milk is added to chocolate by chocolatiers to contribute a creamier mouth-feel and reduce the bitterness of the darker chocolate.


Is Dark Chocolate Healthy?

Since cacao is a plant, it produces antioxidants to keep it alive. These antioxidants end up concentrated in the cacao beans that make their way into chocolate. Flavanols, the particularly potent antioxidants in cacao, have been shown to help reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, lower inflammation and reduce risk for heart disease [1]. The more cacao a chocolate product contains, the more antioxidants you will get. Exciting evidence also suggests that cocoa may reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults, and reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 37 percent [2][3].

Cocoa and chocolate that is alkalized or “Dutch Processed” contains fewer flavanols. The process is designed to improve flavor and shelf life, but unfortunately damages the antioxidants. Our bodies get the most flavanols from dark chocolate that has not been alkalized [4].

In addition to the powerful antioxidant properties of flavanols in chocolate, dark chocolate also contains a variety of micronutrients that are important for mood and energy stability. One ounce of 70% dark chocolate will keep you on an even keel, and contains:

  • 16% of the daily value for magnesium
  • 19% of the daily value for iron
  • 25% of the daily value for copper
  • 27% of the daily value for manganese
  • A smaller but significant amount of phosphorus, zinc and selenium.

Dark chocolate is also a sneaky source of fiber! Yes, the same kind of fiber that helps feed healthy gut bacteria and keep our digestive tract and immune system operating smoothly. Unprocessed cacao nibs actually contain nine whopping grams of dietary fiber per ounce. The average 70% dark chocolate bar, by comparison, contains about three grams -- still about the same as an apple or serving of oatmeal.

Creative Ways to use Dark Chocolate

  • Carefully melt dark chocolate in a bowl over boiling water, and dip fresh strawberries, banana slices, apple slices, or peeled citrus segments. Let harden in the fridge for 30 minutes and enjoy as a delicious, healthy dessert.
  • Drizzle melted dark chocolate over popped popcorn and let harden for homemade “moose munch,” and a satisfying whole grain treat.
  • Stir in a tablespoon of cocoa powder to oatmeal before cooking to make a fun chocolatey bowl of oats.
  • Blend cocoa powder with frozen bananas for dairy-free chocolate “nice” cream.

88 Acres Products with Dark Chocolate

It’s no secret that we love the flavor of chocolate and are excited to make more room for the decadent ingredient in our pantries for our NEW Double Chocolate Mocha Craft Seed Bar, which has an extra boost of cocoa powder in the base bar. Of course, we still love our classic favorite Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Craft Seed Bar for hitting that satisfying salty and sweet note. And Dark Chocolate Sunflower Seed Butter will always make our morning toast a treat.

Resources

1. Hooper L, Kay C, Abdelhamid A, et al. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95:740-51.

2. Farzaneh A. Sorond, Shelley Hurwitz, David H. Salat, Douglas N. Greve, Naomi D.L. Fisher Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013

3. Buitrago-Lopez Adriana, Sanderson Jean, Johnson Laura, Warnakula Samantha, Wood Angela, Di Angelantonio Emanuele et al. Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ 2011; 343 :d4488

4. Miller KB, Hurst WJ, Payne MJ, et al. Impact of alkalization on the antioxidant and flavanol content of commercial cocoa powders. J Agric Food Chem. 2008;56:8527-33.