We’ve all probably heard the news that chocolate is good for you (yipee!). Wait, though: when I say chocolate, I don’t mean the ears of the chocolate bunny left over from Easter; I mean the dark, bitter–tasting bar of chocolate way in the back of the candy cupboard. For many, dark chocolate is off–putting because of its strong, bitter flavour and gritty texture (personally, it’s my favourite kind), but it’s within that foil wrapper where the magical ingredients lie.
First, a little lesson on how chocolate is made: Chocolate is made from cacao pods, which are harvested and cracked open to reveal encased beans. The beans are then removed from their pods and fermented for quite a few days. After the cocoa beans are fermented, they’re dried, stored and shipped to various chocolate manufacturers, where they’re roasted and processed into the chocolate we consume religiously around the same time every month.
Now, why all the praise? Doesn’t chocolate contain a lot of sugar and fat? (Cue the mental image of an acne–covered teenager eating chocolate bar after chocolate bar.) Yes, when we’re talking about milk chocolate and white chocolate, both of which contain no cocoa powder, only cocoa butter, and offer very little, if any, health benefits). But dark chocolate, which is 70% cocoa or higher, is full of stuff that’s good for you.
Numerous studies lay out cocoa’s health benefits. Cocoa can improve the health of your heart, your cholesterol, your cognitive function and fetal development; it can lower your risk of stroke and protect your skin from sun damage. How, you wonder? The cocoa bean is very high in antioxidants. It contains a high level of polyphenols, or flavonoids (red wine also contains polyphenols—the perfect combo? I think yes!), which are plant–based nutrients full of antioxidants. And antioxidants are very important in maintaining your health and preventing disease; they are our body’s primary defense against injury– and disease–causing free radicals.
Here’s a breakdown of cocoa’s benefits:
It lowers blood pressure
Flavanol, the main type of flavonoid in cocoa, stimulates the lining of the blood vessels (endothelium) to produce nitric oxide, which causes those vessels to relax. This process is called vasodilation and it essentially means that your artery walls open up and make for a less resistant blood flow and a lower blood pressure. That said, please don’t use chocolate to treat hypertension—that would be a no–no.
It protects against LDL oxidation
LDL is the bad kind of cholesterol—HDL is the good kind—and it can easily be oxidized in the body. This means that LDL molecules react with the volatile free radicals that roam our bodies, causing damage to such organs and tissues as our blood vessels and heart tissue. Cocoa’s antioxidants donate oxygen molecules to these damaging free radicals, leaving less reactive free radicals available to oxidize LDL.
It protects and improves your skin
Scientists have discovered that the flavonoids in cocoa offer UV protection and skin–plumping effects. They improve blood flow in the body, including the face, which means better hydration and denser skin tissue. Now, these studies looked at the oral ingestion of cocoa, not the topical application of it, but if you want to slather chocolate on yourself, I say give it a go! Let me know what your skin looks like after?
It improves brain function
Since we already know that flavonoids help increase blood flow, it’s not hard to deduce that more blood to the brain through vasodilation can help improve cognitive function. But this isn’t just the antioxidants doing their thing; chocolate also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, which, scientists believe, play a role in the short–term improvement of brain function.
It helps prevent cancer
The American Cancer Institute has been studying the effects of antioxidants in cancer prevention. There’s no conclusive evidence yet but studies are ongoing.
Finally, chocolate also contains many beneficial nutrients (fibre, iron, potassium and more), which can make it a valuable nutrient source when it comes to achieving our Reference Daily Intake. So, relax and chow down! Choosing a chocolate bar that contains a minimum of 70% cocoa can actually be beneficial to your well–being.