Is there a healthy chocolate?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2013

There are nutrients in the cacao bean that contribute to good health but that should be no surprise. It is after all, a plant product. But there's a catch: only dark chocolate has ingredients that influence our health in positive ways.

Crushing the cacao beans forms cocoa liquor, a semisolid material that includes both cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Some chocolate manufacturers add varying amounts of sugar or other ingredients in order to overcome the bitterness of dark chocolate. Lots of sugar makes it more a confection and less a health food, if it could ever be considered to be that.

A Dutchman by the name of van Houten discovered that removing about half of the cocoa butter from cocoa liquor and adding alkali made it easier to mix with water and gave it a milder flavor. Unfortunately the process, especially when milk is added, sharply reduces the healthy nutrients in chocolate. Milk chocolate is strictly a comfort food.

Now that there have been hundreds of research studies that have confirmed the nutritional advantages of dark chocolate the question becomes: how dark and how much? Chocolate aficionados have arbitrarily determined that 70 percent cocoa liquor is the minimum for a chocolate product to be worthy of consideration. Higher percentages have more flavonoids and other nutrients but fewer loyal fans. Unsweetened baking chocolate consists of 100 percent cocoa.

A couple of decades of research have confirmed the modest but real health benefits of dark chocolate. The blood-pressure lowering effect of dark chocolate has been the most consistent. It has a mild ability to lower total cholesterol and LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol and to raise HDL (healthy) cholesterol. As little as one ounce per day of dark chocolate lowered the risk of stroke in some studies. Overall heart health also seems to improve with the intake of moderate amounts of dark chocolate.

Depending on the sugar content of the product, solid chocolate has about 150 calories per ounce. A greater percentage of cocoa butter gives it a smoother texture but increases the calorie count as well. If you are looking for healthy chocolate, choose the one that lists cocoa, not sugar or cocoa butter as the first ingredient.

It's encouraging for chocolate lovers that evidence for the heart-healthy and stroke-preventing benefits of dark chocolate continue to increase, with few negative studies. Just remember not to overdo it.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.