The world got pretty excited when a handful of scientists said that dark chocolate could actually be…beneficial. Not only was it “not bad for you,” but it could actually be good for you. This is the news we’d been dreaming of for years. Since those initial findings came out, the market for “healthy” dark chocolate bars has exploded. But how much of that is real? And how much of this “chocolate is good for you” news is just companies spinning some science to get us all to equate chocolate with salads. Let’s dig into some of the pros and cons of dark chocolate.
First off, what makes dark chocolate special? Dark chocolate has a higher percent of actual cocoa compared to milk and white chocolate. The higher level of cocoa is what gives the health benefits of dark chocolate.
The potential drawback to dark chocolate is it is the most bitter of the chocolates. The higher the percent listed on dark chocolate, the higher the amount of cocoa and more bitter taste (and potential health benefit) it will have.
Dark chocolate is often touted as a health food or even superfood that can positively impact your health. However, there are some potential drawbacks of dark chocolate that should be considered before relying too heavily on it for any health benefit.
Here is a closer look at some of the pros and cons to consider with dark chocolate.
Dark Chocolate Pro #1: Antioxidant Source
Antioxidants are compounds in food that can provide protection to body cells from damage and may help protect against chronic diseases. Flavanols are an antioxidant source found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, red wine, tea and especially cocoa.
Many studies have found an inverse association with flavanol intake and risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Therefore, since cocoa is a good source of flavanols, it could be concluded eating dark chocolate could provide this benefit. However, the manufacturing and processing of chocolate is complex. It which involves fermentation, drying, roasting, nib grinding and tempering of cocoa beans. Which can lower the antioxidant level in chocolate. Cocoa beans have the highest level of antioxidants. But the level of antioxidants in the dark chocolate bar you eat can vary.
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Pro #2: Heart Health
Many (but not all) studies have shown dark chocolate may provide heart health benefits. A 2018 study had research participants consume either 2 grams of 70% dark chocolate or 2 grams of milk chocolate daily. At the end of 6 months, the dark chocolate group significantly lowered blood pressure, total blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL-cholesterol.
A 2015 study found daily intake of dark chocolate (25 grams) lowered blood pressure and fasting blood sugar after 8 weeks. This was compared to participants who had 25 grams of white chocolate daily. A 2012 study of 37,000 men over 10 years concluded moderate chocolate consumption may lower risk for stroke.
One reason dark chocolate is associated with lowering blood pressure is its effect on dilating blood vessels after eating. A by-product of ingesting cocoa is the release of nitric oxide into the bloodstream. This helps blood vessels open which in turn helps lower blood pressure.
Dark Chocolate Pro #3: Brain Function
The nitric oxide that relaxes blood vessels to lower blood pressure can also have a positive effect on brain function. Nitric oxide from ingesting cocoa has been shown to increase blood flow to neurons in the brain. This increased blood flow provides oxygen as well as increased removal of waste products in the brain.
Could eating dark chocolate make you smarter? A 2012 paper indeed found a correlation between chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel laureates per capita. However, a critique of this study is this correlation is on a population basis and did not track the actual intake of chocolate from the Nobel laureates specifically. It is important to remember correlation does not mean causation. And this paper is of course not really suggesting dark chocolate increases the chance of getting a Nobel prize.
Dark chocolate may also positively impact brain function with improving mood and lowering stress. Research has shown consuming 70 percent dark chocolate could have a positive effect on mood, stress and memory. More research is needed for this potential brain benefit effect.
Remember, while dark chocolate could have a positive role in brain function, stress and mood. But there are many other lifestyle and health-related factors that also impact how you feel and function.
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Dark Chocolate Pro #4: It’s a Great Source of Minerals
Cocoa is a source of minerals including: magnesium, copper, potassium and iron. Many Americans do not get enough magnesium or potassium in the diet. So adding dark chocolate to the diet could be a fun way to contribute to meeting these daily intakes. In fact, it is estimated about half of Americans may be deficient in magnesium. And most American adults fall short of recommended potassium intake.
Cocoa is not the only food to provide these nutrients. Many foods can offer higher amounts of these nutrients as well. Other foods that provide these minerals include: vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, red meat and egg yolks.
Dark Chocolate Pro #5: Gut Health
Cocoa and dark chocolate may have a surprising beneficial role on gut health. A 2013 meta analysis on chocolate and gut health found the antioxidants in cocoa may help probiotic strains grow in the intestine. In this sense, these antioxidants are acting like a prebiotic in helping probiotic bacteria grow.
Keep in mind this does not extrapolate to any chocolate promoting gut health. Sugar and other added ingredients to some chocolate products can have the opposite effect on gut health.
Dark Chocolate Potential Pro and Con: Bone Health
Some research suggests dark chocolate may be beneficial for bone health. Why? It’s mainly due to the combined effects of being a source of antioxidants and providing bone building nutrients like magnesium. However, chocolate also provides nutrients that may inhibit bone growth such as sugar and a compound called methylxanthines. Methylxanthines are a caffeine-like compound found in cocoa, tea and coffee.
Studies on chocolate intake and bone health are mixed. Some evidence suggests chocolate intake in adolescence may benefit bone growth. However, daily chocolate intake in post menopausal women has been shown to lower bone density.
In short, there’s not enough true research on the topic of bone health. Until more research comes in, we’d recommend not think of dark chocolate as a way to help bone density issues.
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Dark Chocolate Con #1: Source of Heavy Metals
Dark chocolate is often highlighted as an antioxidant source. But it is also a potential source of heavy metals cadmium and lead. According to Confectionery News, the European Union implemented maximum limits for heavy metals in chocolate. And California now requires a warning label for products that are higher than 4.1 micrograms of cadmium per serving. However, currently there are no other guidelines for labeling levels in dark chocolate.
Dark Chocolate Con #2: Ethical Sourcing
According to Slave Free Chocolate, 2.3 million children work in harvesting cocoa in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Harsh living and working conditions are an unfortunate common occurrence with cocoa harvesting. There have been recent lawsuits against some of the largest chocolate companies from former children slaves. Most of the cocoa supply in the world comes from West Africa. A place where the regulations of child slavery have many gaping holes. Ethically grown chocolate is available, but other chocolate products that are not marked may be made from modern day slaves.
Dark Chocolate Con #3: Lack of Consistency
Chocolate products do not have to label how many antioxidants or heavy metals they contain. Therefore, the amount of both beneficial antioxidants and harmful heavy metals can vary widely in chocolate products. One way to check chocolate products for heavy metals is to check the Consumer Lab list. They are a great resource for cocoa and dark chocolates with the least contamination.
Dark chocolate can mean a catch-all term for chocolate products having anywhere from 50-90 percent of cocoa. Dark chocolate bars with 50 percent cocoa compared to one with 90 percent of cocoa have different nutrition profiles. Always opt for the highest amount of cocoa you can.
Check labels for highest cocoa amounts and least amount of added sugar. If you can tolerate the more bitter flavor for the highest amount of antioxidant potential from dark chocolate.
5 Brands We Recommend
Here are five brands that are ethically sourced, and lean towards the healthier side of the dark chocolate spectrum. We’d recommend any of these brands to anyone looking to get the best dark chocolate. Two notes on the list below: 1) this isn’t in any order of best to worst. And 2) there are lots more great brands out there! If you have a brand you love, do a little research on the company and read the nutrition labels.
As you can see, there are quite a few pros and cons of dark chocolate. Like most foods, dark chocolate has some positive as well as potentially negative effects. Cocoa levels are highest in dark chocolate products which provide a source of antioxidants and minerals. However, dark chocolate products could also be a source of heavy metals and may promote child slavery around the world.
Not all dark chocolates are created equal and can have varying levels of both positive and negative nutrients. For highest levels of antioxidants, choose dark chocolates with higher amounts of cocoa, like over 70 percent. And despite all the pros around dark chocolate, make sure you consume it as a balanced part of your diet.
Holly Klamer MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian and freelance nutrition and writer. She attended Colorado State University where she received her MS and RD certifications. She specializes in sports nutrition, culinary nutrition, disease management/prevention, and disordered eating. She enjoys traveling, trying new foods, running, and spending time outside.