It is a popular symbol as a gift for Valentine’s Day – chocolate. Specifically, dark chocolate (also called “bittersweet” or the more marketing friendly “semi-sweet). Dark chocolate calls forth romantic images, luxurious textures and lush appetites. Dark chocolate is imbued with a touch of sensuality, of mystery.
And perhaps its greatest attribute is its ability to promote good health and well-being.
Even if you are “dieting,” you can enjoy the nutrition and succulence of a bite or two of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is made from pure cocoa butter, and therefore contains a very high percentage of cocoa solids, generally more than 60% with little or no added sugar. Another reason to continue to savor dark chocolate: one study showed that dark chocolate is more satiating and filling than milk chocolate, and it reduces cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.
In this crossover study, 16 healthy men of normal weight were given 100 g dark chocolate in one session and 100 g milk chocolate in the next. After 180 minutes, they were instructed to eat pizza until they were comfortably satiated. Calorie intake was measured, and during the following 5 hours after chocolate consumption, participants were asked to quantify their appetite every half hour, i.e. their hunger, satiety, craving for special foods and how they liked the chocolate. The results were significant. The calorie intake from pizza was 15 percent lower after eating dark chocolate than after eating milk chocolate.
According to Tastewise, a market intelligence firm, monthly growth of dark chocolate was 0.15 in September 2019, but last September, that number skyrocketed to .224, with this treat experiencing an annual COVID-era explosion of 31.3%. Dark chocolate is also the number-one ingredient in bakeries.
Dark chocolate has a robust flavor, and is an excellent source of flavonoids, a class of carotenoids that create its pigment. The darker the chocolate, the greater amount of flavonoids it contains.
First, here’s the difference between dark (healthy) chocolate and milk (not-so-healthy) chocolate, according to the American Heart Association. “Milk chocolate typically contains about 10 percent cocoa liquor – the paste made from ground, roasted, shelled and fermented cocoa beans that contains both nonfat cocoa solids and cocoa butter – compared with a minimum of 35 percent found in dark chocolate.” (This is a great spot for a nomenclature lesson: Vowel movement makes a difference in description: “Cacao” denotes the raw form, while “cocoa” is heated cacao.)
One double-blind, controlled, parallel-arm study showed eating cocoa flavanols was associated with reduced age-related cognitive dysfunction. The researchers evaluated the effect of flavanol consumption daily for eight weeks on cognitive performance in 90 cognitively intact elderly subjects. They concluded that regular cocoa flavonol consumption can reduce some measures of age-related cognitive dysfunction, possibly through an improvement in insulin sensitivity.
Launched in 2017, the four-year COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) is still underway at Brigham and Women's Hospital. COSMOS is a clinical trial that randomized approximately 22,000 men and women in the U.S. to investigate whether taking daily supplements of cocoa flavanols (600 mg/day) or a multivitamin reduces the risk for developing heart disease, stroke, and cancer. According to the study’s principal investigators, part of the study’s purpose is to validate if cocoa flavonols manage blood pressure through promoting production of nitric oxide in the blood vessels, as well as improve glucose metabolism and lower insulin resistance.
Dark Chocolate and Your Heart
It would seem counterintuitive to say that chocolate can help support healthy cholesterol levels; but dark chocolate has been shown to do exactly that. In one study, those who consumed high -polyphenolic cocoa powder (dark chocolate) four weeks had statistically significant reduction in plasma LDL (bad) cholesterol with a corresponding increase in the HDL (good) cholesterol.
Relatedly, one study showed that enjoying dark chocolate more than five times a week results in a reduced risk of poor cardiovascular health by 57%. And in another study of 2,217 participants in the NHLBI Family Heart Study, eating dark chocolate two ore more times per week was associated with a 32% reduction of calcification of plaques in coronary arteries.
Research also showed that consuming dark chocolate with almonds had a heart-healthy effect. In the study 31 participants consumed one-third a cup of almonds combined with one-quarter cup of dark chocolate and 2 1/3 tablespoons of cocoa for four weeks. The study found that combining raw almonds, dark chocolate and cocoa significantly reduced the number of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, particles in the blood of overweight people.
Happiness in a Bite
Dark chocolate has another superpower beyond cardiovascular support – it can help promote healthy mood and outlook. One study culled data from the 13,626 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, looking specifically at chocolate consumption and depressive symptoms. The authors found that, “Although non‐dark chocolate consumption was not significantly associated with clinically relevant depressive symptoms, significantly lower odds of clinically relevant depressive symptoms were observed among those who reported consuming dark chocolate. These results provide some evidence that consumption of chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, may be associated with reduced odds of clinically relevant depressive symptoms.”
Good and stable moods are produced in part by the health of the gut-brain axis; and in this alignment is the gut microbiota. In one study, dark chocolate was combined with another carotenoid, lycopene, in the goal of discerning impact on the gut microbiota. This study also explored the systemic effect of, blood, liver metabolism, skeletal muscle tissue oxygenation and skin in 30 middle-aged and overweight men and women. After a month, there was an increased relative abundance of, Lactobacillus in the gut microbiota.
Dark chocolate is a treasure chest of good phytochemicals, including a powerful one, theobromine. One comprehensive review mentions several studies showing that theobromine benefits the throat against irritants.
The authors of this study are bullish on the future of dark chocolate compounds for health based on new and previous research: “Over the last decades,” they write, “a remarkable progress has allowed understanding some of the molecular mechanisms that are behind the proved health benefits of cacao consumption in man. Apart from the high content of antioxidants, solid evidence points to methylxanthines as key players in the beneficial effects.”
And the future holds even more promise with dark chocolate. One team studied the combination of dark chocolate with Bacillus coagulans to see if the combination was viable. The researchers determined that dark chocolate “constitutes a suitable matrix” for this popular probiotic species.
If you are a milk-chocoholic, try switching to dark chocolate. You will find it savory, less intensely sweet, and your body (and scale) will thank you.