Chocolate: Are There Health Benefits?

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like chocolate. While it's mostly known for its taste (and the associated cravings), it’s also a good source of nutrients when in its pure form and eaten in moderation.

This well-loved food, once called the "drink of the gods" by the Maya people, has a rich history as well. Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao pod, which grows on the cacao tree. Theobroma cacao is native to the tropical rainforests of Central America, where it has grown for thousands of years.

It was likely cultivated by the Olmecs and Maya peoples about 2,500 years ago. By about 2,000 years ago, the Maya were experienced cacao bean farmers, and were fond of grinding them up for a refreshing hot beverage. Aztecs later continued this love of chocolate, and the Spanish then discovered the drink in the 1500s and passed it around the world.

There are three main varieties of cacao bean: Criollo from Latin America, Forastero from Africa, and Trinitario from the Caribbean. Forastero accounts for about 90 % of all cacao beans, with Criollo and Trinitario making up the rest.

Nutrition Information

Eating dark chocolate offers you a good mix of minerals, including:

  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Phosphorus
  • Copper

One-quarter cup of dark chocolate, about 1.5 oz or 2 large squares, contains:

  • 142 calories
  • 2 grams of protein
  • 10 grams of fat
  • 15 grams of carbohydrates
  • 3 grams of fiber
  • 11 grams of sugar
  • 0 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 0 milligrams of sodium

Potential Health Benefits of Chocolate

One fact is clear for chocolate: the purer and darker the chocolate, the greater your health benefits. Raw chocolate or minimally processed dark chocolate high in cocoa solids is healthier than milk chocolate and white chocolate. Dark chocolate has anywhere from 50 to 90 percent cocoa solids, while milk chocolate is typically 10 to 30 percent. White chocolate is pure cocoa butter and doesn't offer you any health benefits.

There's a lot going on in chocolate. Raw cacao nibs are crushed pieces of dried cacao beans, and when you grind them up you get cocoa paste, also called cocoa liquor. Cocoa solids are what you have once you remove the cocoa fat, or cocoa butter, from cocoa paste. When you dry cocoa solids, you get cocoa powder.

Continued

To get noticeable health benefits from chocolate, you need to eat more of the cocoa solids found in dark chocolate. Cocoa solids contain minerals and antioxidants; cocoa butter does not.

Dark chocolate has a good variety of minerals and polyphenolic compounds like antioxidants and flavonoids. Chocolate is especially rich in flavanols like epicatechin and catechin, as well as anthocyanins and phenolic acids. All of these compounds help protect your cells from inflammation, improve your brain function, and boost your immune and cardiovascular health.

Dark chocolate can also give you:

Cardiovascular support. The antioxidants in dark chocolate help to lower bad cholesterol levels and prevent plaque on artery walls, while the flavanols in chocolate are good for lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow. Eating dark chocolate in moderation can lower your chances of heart disease. It can also ease lower inflammation in the body.

More energy. Theobromine, a compound in dark chocolate, has similar effects to caffeine for boosting energy and overall morale. It helps to enhance mood and make you more alert.

Potential Risks of Chocolate

Chocolate is high in calories, so you need to enjoy it in moderation. You can have about 1 ounce of dark chocolate no more than three times a week.

Bars of chocolate are difficult to measure because the sizing is so variable, but to help with portions, look at the packaging to see how many ounces are in that bar. If the bar measures 3 ounces, eat no more than one-third of it in one sitting and then wait a couple of days before enjoying more.

Beware of extra ingredients added to the chocolate that can take way some of the health benefits, too, like caramel and marshmallows.

Healthy Alternatives

Carob is a pod that comes from trees in the Mediterranean. It's pulp is ground into a powder that tastes very similar to cocoa powder. It's low in fat, high in fiber, and without the caffeine that chocolate has.

Cacao nibs are cocoa beans that are broken up and not as processed. You can ground them up and use them to bake like powder, or you can mix them into things like yogurt and trail mix. They're high in fiber, and they give you a nice bit of antioxidants, as well.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 13, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "An Overview of the Physical and Biochemical Transformation of Cocoa Seeds to Beans and to Chocolate: Flavor Formation."

Malaysian Journal of Pathology: "The History and Science of Chocolate."

Kew Gardens: "The Fruit Behind Your Chocolate Bar."

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source - Dark Chocolate."

Antioxidants and Redox Signaling: "Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease."

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Chocolate, 'Food of the Gods': History, Science, and Human Health."

Food & Function: "Beneficial Effects of Dark Chocolate on Exercise Capacity in Sedentary Subjects: Underlying Mechanisms."

Journal of the American Heart Association: "Effects of Dark Chocolate and Almonds on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Individuals: A Randomized Controlled‐Feeding Trial."

Frontiers in Pharmacology: " The Relevance of Theobromine for the Beneficial Effects of Cocoa Consumption."

Cleveland Clinic: "Heart Healthy Benefits of Chocolate," "5 Healthy Alternatives to Chocolate."

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