Chocolate comes from cacao, a plant with high levels of minerals and antioxidants. Commercial milk chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and small quantities of cacao. In contrast, dark chocolate has much larger amounts of cacao and less sugar than milk chocolate. There are now plenty of companies that make delicious vegan chocolate – which is even better for you – dark and rich without dairy!
Regularly eating dark chocolate may help reduce a person’s likelihood of developing heart disease. Some of the compounds in dark chocolate, specifically flavanols, affect two major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
I am always excited when I read studies like the one that showed that those who ate chocolate at least five times per week had a 57% lower risk of coronary heart disease than non-chocolate eaters. Another study found that eating chocolate at least twice per week was associated with a 32% lower risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries. (Keep in mind that these studies show an association but don’t necessarily account for other factors that may be involved.)
The flavanols in dark chocolate stimulate nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate, or widen, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure.
A 2015 study investigated the effects of chocolate consumption in 60 people with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. The researchers found that participants who ate 25 grams of dark chocolate daily for 8 weeks had significantly lower blood pressure than those who ate the same quantity of white chocolate.
The findings of a 2017 review showed that the beneficial effects of dark chocolate on blood pressure might be more significant in older people and those with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, as opposed to younger, healthy individuals.
Dark chocolate also contains certain compounds, such as polyphenols and theobromine (a natural compound that lowers blood pressure), that may lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the body and increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Doctors often refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad cholesterol” and HDL cholesterol as “good cholesterol”, though we need both cholesterols in our diets.
Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells stop responding to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance can cause abnormally high levels of blood glucose, which can lead to pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. A 6-month study from 2018 examined the relationship between regular dark chocolate consumption and blood glucose levels among Hispanic individuals. The research findings suggest that eating 48g of 70-percent dark chocolate each day may help lower fasting glucose levels and reduce insulin resistance.
The findings of a small 2018 study suggest that the flavanols present in dark chocolate may enhance neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, particularly in response to injury and disease. A study from 2016 identified a positive association between regular chocolate consumption and cognitive performance.
The health benefits of dark chocolate come primarily from the flavanols present in the cacao solids. Flavanol content varies among dark chocolate products. Processing methods also differ between manufacturers, and this can affect the flavanol content of the chocolate. There is no legal requirement for chocolate manufacturers to report the flavanol content in their products. However, dark chocolate products with a higher percentage of cacao solids should generally contain more flavanols.
Although dark chocolate contains beneficial antioxidants and minerals, it is a very calorie-dense food. So, chocolate can be high in sugar and calories, which can negate many of its health-promoting properties. In general, dark chocolate contains less sugar than milk chocolate and white chocolate. Dark chocolate with higher percentages of cacao solids typically contains even less sugar. Sugar content varies among chocolate manufacturers, so it is advisable to check the nutrition label.
Be sure to pick a high-quality dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70%, and moderate your intake to make the most of its heart-healthy benefits.
How to Buy
Dark chocolate with higher percentages of cacao solids typically contains less sugar but more fat. More cacao also means more flavanols, so it is best to choose dark chocolate that includes at least 70 percent cacao solids. So, when buying chocolate, be sure to choose chocolate that has a high percentage of cacao like 50-90% along with something that doesn’t have a long list of ingredients that sometimes are derived from milk/dairy products such as casein, whey and other ingredients.
The vegan brands I like the best are:
How to Store
You can store your chocolate in the refrigerator but chocolate stored in the refrigerator might “sweat”. This means that a layer of moisture could form on the surface of the chocolate, and when cooled, it will become sticky. This doesn’t affect the taste, just the texture. The temperature in a refrigerator is too low and humidity too high for ideal chocolate storage. I eat enough chocolate that it works to store mine in the fridge, but if you take longer to get through a bar of chocolate, find a dry place in your home such as a cupboard or pantry to keep chocolate. When storing chocolate it is important to remember that chocolate absorbs any nearby smells or flavors which can negatively affect its taste.
How to Cook
When cooking with chocolate, finely chop it for melting, and heat it slowly. Place it in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. The small pieces will help the chocolate melt evenly, and the low heat will make sure it won’t burn.
Pay attention to cacao percentages. They tell you how much of the chocolate is made from the cocoa bean (including the chocolate liquor and the cocoa butter). The rest is made up of anything from sugar to milk to flavorings to emulsifiers.
Don’t buy chocolate chips if you plan to melt them. They often contain stabilizers that help them hold their shape, which can make melted chocolate lumpy.
Don’t be afraid to use chocolate that looks like it’s covered in white dust. That’s probably just cocoa butter that collected on the surface when the chocolate got too warm. The film doesn’t affect the flavor of the chocolate or make it unsafe to eat.