Is Chocolate Healthy?
I love chocolate not only because of the taste, but because it’s a superfood. It’s functional medicine for your DNA. Cacao (raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans) has nearly twice the antioxidants found in red wine and almost triple the antioxidants of green tea. Most people know that dark chocolate contains magnesium, and most of us don’t get enough. But there are many other nutrients in cacao, including: vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, D, E; and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.
To extract the health benefits from every bite, I recommend dark chocolate. Dark chocolate falls into the category of healthy monounsaturated fats—along with avocados, nuts, and seeds. Milk chocolate contains milk, which counters the benefit of the flavanols, a type of flavonoid (phytonutrient) in cacao. For example, one flavanol in chocolate is epicatechin, which acts like an antioxidant and supports insulin sensitivity.
What’s more: Dark chocolate made with at least 70 percent cacao has been proven to lower cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Another molecule in chocolate called phenyl ethylamine acts like a gentle antidepressant. Dark chocolate raises serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical in charge of mood, sleep, and appetite.
What research exists on the benefits of chocolate?
In what may be my favorite study ever done on cortisol, subjects who had 40 grams (1.5 ounces) of dark chocolate per day, for two weeks, showed lowered urine cortisol levels.
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure by 2 to 3 points. It reduces low density lipoproteins (LDL), total cholesterol, and lowers your risk of heart disease. (More studies on chocolate and cardiovascular health can be found here, here , and here. How great is it that all the researchers were itching to find out how good chocolate really is!)
It increases blood flow to the brain, which helps the brain remain neuroplastic and young. It improves executive functioning—including attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, and planning.
Many people speak about the medicinal properties of chocolate, particularly because it provides an antioxidant boost that counters the stress of aging and modern life. From a nutrigenomic perspective, cacao interrupts the mTOR pathway, which helps to slow down aging. It reduces the inflammation associated with acute stress. Dark chocolate dilates blood vessels by inhibiting angiotensin-converting enzyme for 3 hours. (The effect may be even more powerful depending on your genetic makeup.)
A study from Harvard Medical School found that drinking hot chocolate improves brain health and reduces memory loss in people in their seventies.
What should we look for on a chocolate label?
Extra dark chocolate—at least 80 percent cacao or higher, is ideal. When chocolate has higher cacao content, it has more health benefits, in part because there are more flavanols and in part because there is less sugar. I recommend organic, soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free chocolate. If you want to cut out cane sugar altogether, there are some good options sweetened with stevia and coconut sugar (see below). Avoid chocolate with 5 grams of sugar or more.
Aim for purveyors that use single-origin cacao and pay attention to how they limit mold toxins—honestly this comes from studying the company and seeing their commitment in action, such as with the chocolate from Bulletproof. It’s debatable whether the level of mycotoxins in chocolate are enough to harm you, but you will be more vulnerable if you’re like me and one of the 25 percent of the population with the genetics of mold sensitivity. Europe has more stringent mold standards than the U.S., so reach for a European chocolate when you can, such as Lindt (I like their 90% and 99% cacao). As an example, forty grams of 90% chocolate from Lindt contains 3 grams of sugar. Thumbs up! Sadly, mold toxins are common in chocolate and coffee. Keep chocolate in the refrigerator or freezer to limit growth of mold once you open your bar. There’s a fair amount of child labor and slavery among some chocolate producers, so consider buying from ethical origins or look for “Fair Trade” on the label. I’m also careful to avoid chocolate mixed with inflammatory oils (like cheap vegetable oils, partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats, palm kernel oil)—I eat chocolate made with raw cacao mixed with organic cacao butter. Now that most people avoid soy lecithin, the question is whether sunflower lecithin is better. It’s added to chocolate for emulsification, or to make the chocolate more creamy and smooth. Sunflower lecithin is derived from the gum of sunflower seeds by cold pressing. Compared with soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin is not chemically processed if cold pressed, not allergenic, and not genetically modified. If your chocolate contains sunflower lecithin, just make it organic.
How much should we be consuming, and how often?
I recommend eating one small square (about 1 to 1.5 ounces) of dark chocolate per day. Note: 1 ounce of dark chocolate contains about 12 milligrams of caffeine (about half the amount in a cup of green tea), so be careful not to overindulge, particularly if you’re like me and slowly metabolize caffeine due to your CYP1A2 gene. If you think chocolate might be an avalanche food—you eat one bite and won’t stop until the bar is gone—I’d avoid it altogether.
Is chocolate best eaten on its own, or is it better mixed with certain ingredients or used in cooking?
I prefer to eat extra dark chocolate on its own. I let it melt in my mouth slowly, so I can savor every tiny bit. I like 85 to 99 percent cacao, which takes some getting used to. It tastes like somewhat bitter at first until your palate adjusts. If your palate prefers the less dark variety, consider pairing your chocolate with nuts or seeds to lower the glycemic impact (raising your blood sugar may age you).
Drinking chocolate is another way to get your health benefits. Find a good organic chocolate herbal tea, or mix up a delicious green shake with a chocolate-flavored protein powder. Every morning, I start my day with a chocolate protein-packed shake with plenty of greens to get myself energized for my day—the strong chocolate flavor balances out the taste of the greens. It’s delicious, fills me up, and stabilizes my blood sugar.
So my friends, I’ve laid it all out for you. I like that chocolate tastes great, makes me feel good and loads me up with antioxidants and other goodies. Chocolate can actually be good for you! Learn about other great-tasting foods that can help you look and feel great in my book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years.