The Scientific Reasons Chocolate Is Really Great for You
Here at Clean Plates, we don’t believe in foods being “good” or “bad.” The idea of dessert being a “guilty pleasure” moralizes food in a way that often leads to an unhealthy relationship with what we eat. However, it’s true that there are some foods we should be incorporating into our diets more often (like fresh vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains) and others we can fully enjoy, but know that if we eat them less frequently, we’ll feel better (like processed foods).
People are inarguably passionate about chocolate, but often consider it one of those “guilty pleasures.” Here’s the fantastic news: Chocolate is one of those rare dessert foods that’s also surprisingly healthy.
All chocolate products are made from the cacao bean, which is harvested from cacao fruits, roasted, and then processed into various parts for use: The ground beans are called chocolate liqueur, the fat is cocoa butter, and the dried solids become cocoa powder. To make chocolate bars, these elements are mixed back together with sweetener, and sometimes dairy, too. Humans have been eating chocolate in various forms for over a millennium, starting with Mayans, who drank it as a savory beverage.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a huge rise in the availability of sugar-free, dairy-free, and minimally processed chocolate bars and other chocolate products, which means it’s easier than ever to find healthier versions to enjoy.
Chocolate is full of nutrients that make us feel good in the moment and that help us be well down the line. So cozy up with a cup of cocoa as you learn about why chocolate is honestly great for you.
Antioxidants are key to wellness. Oxidative stress is something that happens from our environment, our diets, and aging, and it causes illness. To combat illness, antioxidants play an important role in preventing and even reversing that oxidative stress. “Chocolate is rich in a variety of different antioxidants, including polyphenols, which have been shown to support heart health, blood sugar regulation, and brain function,” says Amy Davis, RDN, LDN, founder of The Balanced Dietitian.
Polyphenols are well-proven to be beneficial. In addition to helping prevent disease, eating them has been shown to improve our moods. They prevent our brains from cognitive decline, so we can stay sharp, and are even helpful in the fight against psychiatric disorders. Cocoa beans from Colombia have been found to have the highest amounts of polyphenols out of all the places that cacao is grown.
There’s one other food that offers this unusual nutrient, but you likely haven’t heard of it: Macambo seeds. They never quite gained popularity in the nut and seed space, so chocolate remains the only mainstream food that you can find theobromine in. It’s a mild stimulant, which is part of why chocolate can give us a little bit of energy. (The other part is caffeine: One ounce of dark chocolate contains a couple dozen milligrams.) Theobromine gives us energy the same way that caffeine does — by blocking the receptors in our brains that make us sleepy — but it’s gentler on our systems than caffeine is.
Theobromine also has a longer half life than caffeine, meaning it can give us energy for a longer duration of time, so because of that, it’s usually best not to consume chocolate too close to bedtime.
You probably last heard about tryptophan at Thanksgiving, since “The turkey made me tired” is probably the common excuse people give when they get sleepy after dinner. In reality, on that holiday, people just get tired from overeating. But there is truth to l-tryptophan being good for relaxation. It’s a precursor to the feel good chemical serotonin.
L-tryptophan is a strange amino acid in that it gets easily overpowered by other aminos. In order for you to actually feel the effects of it, you have to consume a food that contains it along with carbohydrates. For this reason, chocolate that is sugar-sweetened may make you feel more relaxed than sugar-free chocolate.
When people get menstrual cramps, magnesium is a go-to supplement to help relieve them — and chocolate is a natural source of magnesium.
“Magnesium is a mineral that can support heart health, bone health, and a slew of other factors that impact our overall health,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD, author of Fueling Male Fertility. Magnesium has also been shown to alleviate anxiety. So the idea that craving chocolate around your period is just because you want something sweet and rich is a bit of a fallacy — you’re actually craving a nutrient that can help to reduce your symptoms. How’s that for intuition?
Phenylethylamine, also known as P.E.A. for those of us who like words that are possible to pronounce, is possibly the most exciting compound in chocolate. It’s a chemical that our brains release when we’re in love. So if you want your love interest to conflate their feelings for you with the sensation they get from P.E.A. when they eat chocolate, hand over a box for Valentine’s Day.
Studies consider P.E.A. “a small molecule with a large impact” because of how powerful it is. Consuming it triggers your body to release both dopamine and serotonin. It’s so potent that it’s even available in supplement form, and is considered a natural antidepressant. It’s also been used to treat ADHD.
If you’ve heard of the word “anandamide” before, it was probably in association with marijuana. That’s because anandamide binds to cannabinoid receptors in our brains. It won’t get you high, but chocolate does create a very light sense of euphoria due to the presence of anandamide in it, and scientists have speculated that anandamide might be partly responsible for those chocolate cravings so many of us get.
How to best eat chocolate
Like most foods, not all chocolate is created equal — basically, when selecting a healthier chocolate bar, you want to look for the option with the most actual chocolate, and the least everything else. “When choosing chocolate, look for dark chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa, but the more, the better, since the nutrition will increase as the cocoa content does,” Davis says. She notes that lesser percentage chocolates are, indeed, lower in health value. “Milk chocolate has only about 50% cocoa, and white chocolate has none, and they are both much higher in sugar and milk fat.”
Portion control is also important when it comes to chocolate, considering it’s a naturally high fat food. “Focusing on appropriate serving sizes of your chocolate is an important factor as well. While one serving of dark chocolate can be a healthy part of an overall balanced diet, eating huge portions at a time is not recommended,” says Manaker.
If you want to reap the benefits of chocolate but are concerned about overindulging because chocolate can be a little addictive, consider using cocoa powder more often. It has all of the fat removed, and contains no sweetener. It can be added to your morning coffee to make a mocha, or sprinkled over Greek yogurt for an afternoon pick me up. Cacao nibs are another great option: They’re just cocoa beans that have been dried, fermented, and cracked, so they don’t have any added sugar. They’re especially great in oatmeal and granola.
Chocolate contains a large variety of health benefits. It contains antioxidants that prevent illness, magnesium to relieve muscle aches, and P.E.A. to make us happy, just to name a few of its properties. To keep chocolate as healthy as possible, opt for dark chocolate, which will have the most nutrients with the least amount possible of added sweeteners or other ingredients. While milk and white chocolate taste great, they don’t have nearly as much to offer health-wise. Now, who’s ready for a chocolate candy bar or a chocolate souffle?
Read next: Dark Chocolate Tahini Bark Recipe
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