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  • Alan Frischer, MD, MPH

Chocolate

Is chocolate good for us? There is actually quite a lot of literature on this subject! In case you’re in a hurry to grab some right now, the bottom line is: YES. And, while the nutrients and benefits of chocolate could, of course, be found in more healthful foods, they are not nearly as much fun.


It is important to make the distinction here between dark chocolate, and other types: milk chocolate and white chocolate. Studies uniformly attribute the most benefits to my own personal favorite, dark chocolate.


  • It is nutritious. A 3.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 11 grams of fiber, 67% of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for iron, 58% of the RDA for magnesium, 59% of the RDA for copper, and 98% of the RDA for manganese. It has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. The fatty acid profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is also good; mostly consisting of oleic acid (a heart healthy fat also found in olive oil), and palmitic acid. (Palmitic acid can raise cholesterol levels, but it makes up only one-third of the total fat calories.) Dark chocolate also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, but in very small amounts when compared to coffee or tea. Please keep in mind that 3.5 ounces of chocolate represents a fairly large amount, and is not a daily recommendation. That quantity would be accompanied by 600 calories and a decent amount of sugar. For that reason, let’s practice moderation.

  • Raw unprocessed cocoa beans are loaded with antioxidants. Chocolate’s organic compounds include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. Some studies have found that it contains higher levels of antioxidants than do blueberries.

  • The flavonoids in dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure. Many controlled studies support this; the effects are usually mild but nonetheless statistically significant.

  • Dark chocolate appears to be protective against heart disease. It decreases LDL (bad cholesterol) and raises HDL (good cholesterol). Flavanols improve insulin sensitivity, which helps to control fasting blood sugar. It can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of clotting, and increase circulation.

  • Dark chocolate may protect the skin from the sun. Flavanols help to increase skin density and hydration, and to improve blood flow to the skin.

  • Dark chocolate may aid brain function. Flavanols can improve blood flow to the brain, which can lead to an improvement in cognitive function in the elderly with existing impairment. (Its stimulants, like caffeine and theobromine, also likely explain the improvement in brain function.)

  • Dark chocolate may lower the risk of stroke. One major study showed that regular consumption of small amounts reduced the risk of getting a stroke as well as dying from one. Higher amounts resulted in greater reductions.

  • Eating dark chocolate may improve athletic performance. Studies show that eating a little dark chocolate nightly could boost oxygen availability (perhaps because flavanols enhance the release of nitric oxide).

  • It’s even possible that eating dark chocolate daily during pregnancy might benefit fetal growth and development. (That’s certainly convenient!)


Do remember that most candy bars do not consist of only cocoa. They can also be loaded with considerable amounts of sugars and fats. Darker chocolate usually comes with a lower sugar content, but there are, obviously, better ways to consume nutrients. But, yes, there is considerable evidence that cocoa, and in particular, dark chocolate, can provide clear health benefits. Next time you eat a piece of chocolate, don’t feel too guilty!

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