Everyone loves the cocoa bean, but is it as good for you as you might think?
Dark chocolate isn’t just dessert: It’s managed to sneak its way into the health food aisle, cozying up to other “nutritious” snacks like granola bars, trail mix, and more. Sure, everyone wants this health halo to be legit, but does dark chocolate actually have health benefits?
The answer: It all comes down to that bean (and how you use it). Chocolate comes from a cacao or cocoa bean, and it’s that initial bean that hosts the most antioxidant benefits.
“Cocoa beans, the main ingredient in chocolate, contain flavanols, which are an antioxidant that help reduce cell damage associated with heart disease,” says Sharon Richter, RD, a nutritionist in New York City.
But let’s be honest: Those peanut butter cups you’ve been hoarding since Halloween are not the same as eating a pure cocoa bean. After the beans are harvested, they are dried, fermented, and roasted. This process alone can reduce the antioxidant perks of the original bean because it subjects the flavanols to heat and acidic conditions, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Then you have to consider everything that gets added to that chocolate to make it taste bud friendly. Sugar is an obvious offender, which is a major source of excess calories in the average American’s diet and offers little to no health benefits. (Here’s what a nutritionist wants you to know about sugar.)
Then, take milk, a common add-in for chocolate bars and candy. Research shows that milk protein could interfere with or negate antioxidant benefits of the cocoa bean. Sorry, milk chocolate lovers.
The typical chocolate treats that might tempt you in the checkout lane are barely cocoa anymore. “Most of the chocolate you see on the supermarket shelves, like milk chocolate, is highly processed and packaged with fat, sugar, and empty calories,” says Richter, “which can lead to weight gain, a risk factor for high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.”
For that reason, Richter suggests choosing dark chocolate that’s 70 percent cocoa or higher. If you can handle the bitterness, you can go even darker. Pure cocoa, including cocoa powder, is lower in sugar and fat, and because of its strong flavor, you might be satisfied with just a few bites. (Try this chocolate hazelnut smoothie for cocoa perks in a glass.)
Even the darkest, most natural chocolate is still high in calories compared with, say, celery sticks, so enjoy your healthy dark chocolate in moderation as part of a healthy diet rich in fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains.
Want to add dark chocolate to your diet? Here are tips for buying healthier chocolate.
Added sugars. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association, 2017. (Accessed on January 17, 2018 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars_UCM_305858_Article.jsp#.Wl9UkxNSzBI.)
Behind the scenes with Taza: how chocolate is made. The Kitchn, 2009. (Accessed on January 17, 2018 at https://www.thekitchn.com/behind-the-scenes-with-taza-ch-83471.)
Keen CL, Holt RR, Oteiza PI, Fraga CG, Schmitz HH. Cocoa antioxidants and cardiovascular health. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jan;81(1):2985-3035.
Serafini M, Bugianesi R, Maiani G, Valtuena S, De Santis S, Crozier A. Plasma antioxidants from chocolate. Nature. 2003 Aug;424(6952):1013.