Since I love chocolate so much, I thought it would be fun to explore the health benefits! Not that I'm trying to justify my actions or anything....
As it turns out, chocolate, in moderation, has some of the same properties as red wine. Chocolate is high in flavonoids, a type of antioxidant which may combat aging and heart disease. According to an article on About.com, dark chocolate is eight times as antioxidant dense as some of our favorite fruits, like strawberries. (For more information on antioxidants, which are frequently classified as phytonutrients, check out the first blog post I ever wrote.)
The Cleveland Clinic says that the main types of flavonoids in chocolate are called flavanols, and these have been shown to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. The About.com article mentioned above also says that the affect on LDL cholesterol may be as high as a ten percent reduction! As you may know, when LDL cholesterol oxidizes, it tends to build up and stick to your arteries. In that case, it can block the way for blood flow and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Some of the substances found in chocolate prevent the LDL cholesterol from oxidizing (hence the term "antioxidant"), which helps stop the build-up. According to a Huffington Post article, "Research performed at the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, found that chocolate thins the blood and performs the same anti-clotting activity as Aspirin." As you may be aware, Aspirin is often prescribed in low doses as a blood thinner for individuals at risk for heart disease. Harvard Medical School also reports that chocolate has been linked to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation.
Not only does chocolate affect blood flow, but it has also been shown to elevate mood! Chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, the same chemicals that make us feel happy when we exercise. Chocolate also contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant, in addition to a variety of stimulants, such as theobromine and caffeine. In fact, the Huffington Post article stipulates that the serotonin in chocolate may be a partial explanation for why women crave chocolate during PMS and menstruation, since their natural serotonin levels are typically down on those days.
Despite these health effects, the research comes with a caution! According to the Cleveland Clinic, not all forms of chocolate provide equal benefit. The flavanols naturally found in cocoa are also largely responsible for the bitter taste of unsweetened chocolate. The more cocoa is processed to make the palatable goodies we enjoy, the more the flavanols are depleted. While nearly all of the websites I found agree that dark chocolate contains the most flavanols, the Cleveland Clinic states that recent research shows the level of flavanols is not universally consistent in dark chocolate, as it depends on how the dark chocolate was processed (fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.) Nevertheless, dark chocolate or non-Dutch processed cocoa are typically much better bets than milk chocolate. (So I guess all those years of loving dark chocolate weren't just a result of strange taste in flavors; I was being healthy!)
Many people may worry about the high fat content in chocolate. Interestingly enough, there are three main types of fat in chocolate, each found in about equal proportions, and they are not all considered harmful. According to both About.com and the Cleveland Clinic, one of the fats is called oleic acid, which is a healthy monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil. The second is stearic acid, which is a saturated fat, but research has shown this particular fat does not adversely affect cholesterol. The third type is palmitic acid, which is one type of saturated fat known to contribute to higher cholesterol. So the good news is, only about 1/3 of the naturally occurring fat in chocolate is bad for you!
A lot of the problems come in with the ingredients we add to cocoa. Milk chocolate, in particular, typically has added butterfat and significantly more sugar, both of which are linked to a variety of health concerns. And even dark chocolate can be made significantly less healthy by adding caramel, nougat, marshmallow, and other ingredients. These unhealthy additions typically outweigh the benefits of the chocolate itself. Furthermore, consuming a king-sized candy bar is not going to help your heart health. The ideal serving size to maximize the benefit of chocolate is one to three ounces a few times per week. And remember that even healthy chocolate has calories. If you add chocolate to your diet regularly, you may need to exercise more or cut out an equal number of calories from another meal or snack to maintain a consistent body weight.
So the lessons seem to be: enjoy chocolate for the healthy benefits it provides, savor each bite for the delicious flavor, and consume in moderation. Mmmm, chocolate!
Photo credit: http://experiencechocolate.com/