Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
We’ve been hearing about the benefits of chocolate for some years, but the evidence just keeps mounting. Researchers from Harvard Medical School recently analyzed 21 controlled studies that followed a total of 2,575 people and presented their findings at a conference of the American Heart Association. The Harvard review confirmed earlier conclusions that cocoa flavonoids are the ingredient in chocolate that boosts well-being. Although many fruits and vegetables contain flavonoids, the form in cocoa is particularly beneficial for the heart.
According to the Harvard analysis, short-term benefits experienced by people who regularly consumed flavonoid-rich cocoa included:
- A decrease in blood pressure by up to 2 points, a significant health benefit.
- A 1.5 percent increase in flow-mediated dilation, an indicator of a healthy blood vessel’s ability to relax. As a comparison, other research has found a similar improvement from a dramatic reduction
of dietary salt.
- An increase in “good” HDL cholesterol. In addition to heart benefits, higher HDL levels have been identified as a common denominator among people who live exceptionally long lives.
- A decrease in “bad” LDL cholesterol levels among those under age 50.
- A decreased risk for diabetes, a contributor to heart disease.
- Less insulin resistance, a precursor for both diabetes and heart disease.
The longer-term benefits of cocoa may be greater. In a 15-year study of 470 elderly Dutch men, risk of death from heart disease or other causes dropped by half and blood pressure was more than 3 points lower among those who consumed the most cocoa. A blood-pressure decrease of 3 points is estimated to reduce death from strokes by 8 percent, death from heart disease by 5 percent, and death from any cause by 4 percent. In the study, the top cocoa consumers ate about 4.2 grams of cocoa daily, the amount found in approximately 10 grams of dark chocolate (about one-third of an ounce). Overall, chocolate accounted for about two-thirds of this amount and the rest came from cocoa drinks, puddings, other foods, and supplements.
Other studies have found that cocoa reduces harmful clotting in blood, protects against cancer, lowers levels of stress hormones, may boost friendly gut bacteria, and may ease symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
How To Choose Cocoa
- Choose dark chocolate with at least 65 percent cacao, with cocoa butter rather than added oils or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats. A higher cacao percentage means more beneficial nutrients.
- Choose cocoa powder that is not alkalized, or “non-alkaline,” as the process of alkalization (to reduce bitterness) destroys beneficial nutrients. “Dutch” cocoa has been alkalized.
- Raw cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and chocolate are nutritious options.
- Look for cocoa in protein and other nutrient-rich powders, such as green formulas, and in supplements.
- Buying Fair Trade products supports humane treatment of people, land, and forests in cocoa-growing regions.
Related: Chocolate, Unwrapped
How Much Is Therapeutic?
“Research suggests that drinking a cup of dark hot chocolate can be equated with drinking a glass of wine in protecting the heart,” says Lona Sandon, RD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Health Professions in Dallas.
For chocolate, studies have generally found benefits with amounts ranging from one-quarter of an ounce to approximately 1.5 ounces of a dark chocolate daily. In chocolate protein powders, baked goods, and desserts, it makes sense to look for real cocoa or chocolate, rather than chocolate flavoring.
Finding Your Favorite Flavor
Like wine, cocoa has many unique flavors, depending on the variety of the plant, the region where it grows, and the techniques used to cultivate, harvest, and produce chocolate. Natural flavors are most noticeable in dark chocolate.
“The cacaos from Ecuador and Peru are famous for producing floral or herbal flavors, while those from Venezuela and the Caribbean are more fruity and spicy,” says Ray Major, a cocoa expert who has travelled the world finding premium cocoa for more than 30 years. However, he cautions that such specific differences may not be obvious in all chocolate brands. Bottom line, cocoa flavors are complex, and the only way to find your personal favorite is by tasting chocolate and cocoa from different regions.
Iced Cocoa Recipe
Makes 1 Serving Cool off on a hot summer’s afternoon with this refreshing, healthful drink.
- 1.5 cups ice
- ½ cup Hemp Bliss, original unsweetened
- 4 Tbs. Dagoba Unsweetened Organic Drinking Chocolate
- ½-1 tsp. organic light agave syrup
Blend ingredients thoroughly and serve immediately.
Per Serving: 110 cal; 5 g prot; 6.5 g total fat (3 g sat fat); 19 g carb; 0 mg chol; 45 mg sod; 4 g fiber; 15 g sugars