Dark chocolate and heart health

Before you stock up on chocolate bars, remember that only dark chocolate has been found to be beneficial. Dark chocolate has the highest amount of cocoa flavanols.

“Milk chocolate has not shown similar benefits,” Dr. Uddin says. “Processing removes most of the beneficial compounds, including flavanols. White chocolate has no flavanols and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar and milk.”

“Percentage of cocoa is important,” Dr. Uddin continues. “Stick with minimally processed dark chocolate bars that are at least 70 percent cocoa to obtain the most flavanols. But make sure to limit your portions.”

Keep in mind that the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the greater the amount of cocoa flavanols, but also the greater the bitter flavor. “Try taking a small piece and letting it melt slowly in your mouth,” Dr. Uddin recommends. “Just a bite or so a day is all you need to reap the cardiovascular benefits.”

A standard bar of dark chocolate contains about 600 calories and 24 grams of sugar. Milk chocolate contains about the same number of calories, but twice the sugar.

“Overindulging doesn’t do your heart any favors,” Dr. Uddin says. “Excess weight makes your heart work much harder just to do its job and increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.”

For maximum benefit, combine your taste for dark chocolate with a healthy lifestyle.

“Exercise, maintain a healthy weight and talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health.”

Every year, Americans spend $22 billion on chocolate, and it’s a safe bet that Valentine’s Day accounts for a decent percentage of that total. While a heart-shaped box of chocolates may seem like the opposite of healthy, experts say it’s less about the occasional small indulgence and more about making good everyday food choices.

Most chocolate falls into one of three categories: milk chocolate, dark chocolate or white chocolate. Chocolate’s darkness is determined by the proportion of cocoa solids made from cocoa beans, mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.

Milk chocolate, the most popular type in America, typically contains about 10 percent cocoa liquor – the paste made from ground, roasted, shelled and fermented cocoa beans that contains both nonfat cocoa solids and cocoa butter – compared with a minimum of 35 percent found in dark chocolate. Shoppers can tell how much cocoa liquor is in a dark chocolate bar by looking for the “percent cacao” figure on the label. Cacao is the raw form of chocolate, while cocoa is the heated version of cacao.

White chocolate, however, contains only cocoa butter – no cocoa solids – combined with sugar and other ingredients. (And for many people, it’s not really considered a chocolate at all.)

A standard bar of dark chocolate with 70 percent to 85 percent cacao contains about 600 calories and 24 grams of sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database. Milk chocolate contains roughly the same number of calories but twice the sugar.

The amount of cocoa solids in dark chocolate is important because it can be an indicator of the amount of dietary flavonoids, which are antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables and certain drinks. Research suggests consuming more dietary flavonoids is linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

Most dark chocolate is high in flavonoids, particularly a subtype called flavanols that is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Some studies suggest chocolate or cocoa consumption is associated with a lower risk of insulin resistance and high blood pressure in adults.

“While dark chocolate has more flavanols than other types of chocolate, the data to suggest there is enough to have a health effect is thin at this point,” said Alice H. Lichtenstein, the Gershoff professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston.

In a 2017 study that closely controlled what people ate, researchers found that eating raw almonds, dark chocolate and cocoa helped lower “bad” LDL cholesterol in people who are overweight or obese. But when investigators took the almonds away, dark chocolate and cocoa alone didn’t appear to aid heart health.

A potential explanation, researchers said, is that the flavanol dose was about half that used in earlier studies that found a beneficial effect on blood pressure – 274 milligrams of flavanols compared to 586.

But that amount of flavanols “is unlikely achievable with daily consumption of commercially available dark chocolate,” Lichtenstein said.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston are currently studying whether a 600-mg daily supplement of cocoa flavanols can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

In the meantime, chocolate can still be part of an overall healthy diet.

“If you enjoy chocolate,” Lichtenstein said, “the important thing to do is choose the type you enjoy the most and eat it in moderation because you like it, not because you think it is good for you.”

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected]

If you’re like most people, you probably love chocolate and red wine but avoid them to stay healthy and fit. Healthy chocolate sounds too good to be true, but studies show that eating it may reduce your risk of heart disease.

Chocolate and Heart Health

Adding small amounts of chocolate, especially dark chocolate, to your diet may be a heart-healthy choice. Chocolate does contain a substantial amount of fat, sugar and calories, so you should eat it in moderation to avoid potential problems with weight gain, diabetes and high blood pressure. You should choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65 percent or more and limit your intake to three ounces per day which adds up to about 450 calories. Keep in mind you may need to step up your exercise routine to keep these additional calories under control. Studies show that eating one square of dark chocolate a day can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke and heart by as much as 40 percent. Chocolate reduces LDL “bad” cholesterol and promotes flexibility in arteries and veins.

Why Dark Chocolate?

Dark chocolate, also called semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, usually contains a minimum of 60 percent cocoa solids with very little or no added sugar. You can find it in candy, chocolate bars and baking chocolate.

Flavonoids, plant produced phytochemicals, are found in cocoa beans, the main ingredient in chocolate. They are also found in red wine, cranberries, apples, onions and other fruits and vegetables. These flavonoids have been shown in some studies to reduce cell damage associated with heart disease. Since dark chocolate has higher concentrations of cocoa, it also has more flavonoids that in turn increase health benefits. Do other foods contain higher amounts of flavoniods? Surprisingly, the answer is not really. Although plant based flavonoids are found in many other food sources, cocoa beans have extremely high amounts. For example, a dark chocolate candy bar has 5 times more flavonoids than a healthy apple.

Milk Chocolate vs Dark Chocolate

To get antioxidant benefits from flavonoids, you have to eat dark chocolate. Milk binds to flavonoids in chocolate and renders them ineffective, so milk chocolate offers fewer health benefits. If you choose a delicious milk chocolate candy bar, you’ll be getting more calories and sugar than beneficial flavonoids. Even if you drink a glass of milk with your dark chocolate bar, you may lose the antioxidant benefits from the dark chocolate. Pure white chocolate contains no cocoa solids and no flavonoids.

Additional Benefits of Dark Chocolate

  • Immune System – flavonoids in chocolate may act as antioxidants that fight inflammation, infection and disease.
  • Mood – chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain which elevate mood by producing a sense of pleasure, happiness and well-being.
  • Weight – dark chocolate reduces cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. Although it does contain fats, two-thirds of the fats in dark chocolate are healthy fats.
  • Skin Health – antioxidants protect the body from premature aging by promoting collagen production for clear, healthy skin.
  • Diabetes – flavonoids in dark chocolate may help reduce insulin resistance and control insulin sensitivity.

Although dark chocolate is a delicious way to boost heart health, a healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease. If you’ve been diagnosed with heart problems, talk to your doctor about healthy foods, exercises and vitamins for heart disease patients. Your choices impact your long-term benefits for a healthy heart.

The health benefits of dark chocolate are widely known—especially its effect on your heart. But new research is finding that chocolate may help boost your performance. Here’s what you need to know before breaking off a square (or two).

Go Dark For Your Heart
Studies have found that a daily square of dark chocolate can improve your heart health thanks to its flavanols, which serve as antioxidants. One study from 2010 showed that a small dose of dark chocolate could decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke by nearly 40 percent.

But it matters what type of dark chocolate you nibble on. For the heart health benefits, reach for at least 70 percent cacao, which is fairly bitter without the added fat and sugar. And don’t forget that even though dark chocolate is considered a (somewhat) healthy treat, it still packs plenty of calories. A 100-gram bar of 85 percent dark chocolate, for example, clocks in around 600 calories, 450 of which come from fat.

Minimal Processing, Better Performance
New research is finding that chocolate—even at lower percentages of cacao than is normally recommended—may have a performance-boosting effect.

Recent U.K. research shows that epicatechin, an antioxidant found in the cacao (cocoa) bean, may have slight performance benefits.

The study, while small, showed that cyclists who consumed 40 grams of dark chocolate (Dove, in this case) a day displayed slight improvements in distance compared to their performance after consuming white chocolate.

White chocolate is highly processed, which means it’s lost most, if not all, of its epicatechin.

“The more chocolate is processed the more antioxidant flavonols, including epicatechin, are lost,” said Monique Ryan, M.S., R.D.N., the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.

Dove dark chocolate has high levels of epicatechin, study co-author Rishikesh Patel told Runner’s World by email. And a 2004 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found it to improve blood flow in arteries.

But Dove dark chocolate is relatively low in cacao—only 53 percent. Which poses the question, does cacao percentage matter when it comes to performance? Patel and colleagues are currently analyzing different levels of flavanols in chocolate to measure their effectiveness on exercise. But the results won’t be out until next year.

The Takeaway
The more processed the chocolate, the less of the good stuff (heart-healthy antioxidants and epicatechin) there is. So while Patel’s study found you may be able to to get a small performance benefit from the sweeter-tasting Dove dark chocolate, it’s more processed than other options that may be better for your heart, like cacao nibs. Nibs, available online and at gourmet grocery stores, are very close to the original, unprocessed bean, with a texture not unlike a coffee bean.

“A higher cacao percentage will taste more bitter, so it really just depends on your taste preferences,” Ryan said.

But whatever you do, choose dark over milk chocolate, which has more added sugar and fat.

And while the participants of Patel’s study ate an entire 40-gram chocolate bar daily (1.4 ounces), Ryan suggests a smaller amount to keep your waistline in check.

“I would keep it to half an ounce or one ounce per serving—just from a calorie perspective,” she said.

Dove’s 40.8-gram dark chocolate bar is 220 calories and 13 grams fat.

Heart Healthy Benefits of Chocolate

Is Chocolate Good for Your Heart?

Why a little, in moderation, may be beneficial

Chocolate has gotten a lot of media coverage in recent years because it’s believed that it may help protect your cardiovascular system. The reasoning being that the cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids.

Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They can be found in a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power.

Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, it can become damaged by free radicals. For example, an increase in oxidation can cause low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol, to form plaque on the artery walls.

Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.

These plant chemicals aren’t only found in chocolate. In fact, a wide variety of foods and beverages are rich in flavonols. These include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.

Are all types of chocolate healthy?

Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.

Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost.

Most commercial chocolates are highly processed. Although it was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels of flavanols, recent research indicates that, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed, this may not be true. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates. But for now, your best choices are likely dark chocolate over milk chocolate (especially milk chocolate that is loaded with other fats and sugars) and cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing (cocoa that is treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity).

What about all of the fat in chocolate?

You may be surprised to learn that chocolate isn’t as bad for you as once believed.

The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. You may know that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

But, research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. Still, this does not mean you can eat all the dark chocolate you’d like.

First, be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. Watch out for those extra ingredients that can add lots of extra fat and calories. Second, there is currently no established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits it may offer, and more research is needed in this area. However, we do know that you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate once in a while.

So, for now, enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., 1 ounce) a few times per week, and don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries.

Share Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Get useful, helpful and relevant health + wellness information enews

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Exercise. Eat healthy. Stay slim. Lower your stress.

This “to-do” list is great for a healthy heart, but it may not sound like fun. Thank goodness, there’s chocolate! Hundreds of studies have found that chocolate—specifically, dark chocolate— keeps the heart and blood vessels in good shape. Here are some of the ways this delicious treat helps the heart:

It may decrease inflammation.

During times of stress, the body creates inflammation, which may cause or worsen heart disease. But dark chocolate stops this chain reaction, according to recent research. Men in the study ate either a dark chocolate bar or one that looked the same but didn’t have the healthy substances found in dark chocolate. Then they took a stressful test. Afterwards, blood tests showed that the men who got the real dark chocolate had lower levels of inflammation markers than those who got the fake kind.

It may reduce your chances of having a stroke.

Eating dark chocolate may lower your risk for a stroke, which happens when a blood vessel carrying oxygen to the brain is blocked by a clot or bursts. In a 2012 Finnish study of more than 37,000 men, those who ate about 2 ounces of dark chocolate a week lowered their risk of stroke compared to those who didn’t eat chocolate.

It may lower the risk of heart rhythm problems.

A Dutch study involving more than 55,000 people showed that just 2 to 6 ounces of cocoa per week lowered the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat by 20%. That’s good because people with this heart problem have a 5 times greater risk of having a stroke.

It may improve cholesterol levels.

In research published in 2005, people were given about 3½ ounces of either dark chocolate or white chocolate to eat every day for 15 days. Those who got the dark chocolate lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol—the type that clogs arteries and slows the flow of blood—by about 12%.

It may improve your circulation.

When the flow of blood to arms and legs slows, it can become painful to walk. But eating 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate helped people with a condition that decreases blood flow to the legsto walk 15 %longer and 11% farther than those who ate milk chocolate, according to a 2014 study.

It may lower blood pressure.

High blood pressure is believed to be responsible for half of the world’s cases of heart problems like heart attacks and strokes. But a little dark chocolate could keep your blood pressure in the healthy range. A review study looking at 35 previous studies found that regularly eating dark chocolate and cocoa products caused small but important decreases in blood pressure.

To get the most out of chocolate, you need the kind with a high amount of cacao beans, the plant that chocolate is made from. Choose brands that say 70% cacao or higher on the label.

Feel free to eat dark chocolate regularly, but don’t overdo it, as excess calories can cause weight gain. A small portion—just a square or two a day—will still put a smile on your face while boosting your heart health.

If you’re a chocoholic, the news out of England is tantalizing: middle-aged and older adults who eat up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate a day (that’s more than two standard Hershey bars) seem to have lower rates of heart disease than those who spurn chocolate.

At least that was the conclusion of a study that followed the health of nearly 21,000 resident of Norfolk, England, for 11 years. Among those in the top tier of chocolate consumption, 12% developed or died of cardiovascular disease during the study, compared to 17.4% of those who didn’t eat chocolate. The results were published online in the medical journal Heart.

Desire vs. evidence

I’m a chocolate lover. My new favorite is an ice cream called Chocolate Therapy. The name doesn’t feel like a stretch, given the results of this study and many before it that have linked eating chocolate to a lower risk of heart disease.

Much as I’d like to believe in that connection, and get to work on my own personal Chocolate Therapy, we don’t yet know enough to put eating chocolate on a par with eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

All of the large studies, including the one from Norfolk, are observational studies. That means the researchers asked questions about the participants eating habits, tracked their health, and made statistical connections. These kinds of studies can generate important insights. But they can’t prove cause and effect. It takes a randomized trial to do that.

It’s possible that people who like to eat chocolate do something else that offers heart protection, like eat a wide variety of healthful foods. One of the interesting things about this research is that participants in the non-chocolate group had higher average weight, more artery-damaging inflammation, more diabetes, were less physically active and had diets with the least amount of fat compared to chocolate eaters.

Is milk chocolate okay?

Most of the previous studies on the chocolate-heart connection found that only dark chocolate offered any cardiovascular protection. In the Norfolk study, any type of chocolate, including milk chocolate, seemed to have the same beneficial effect.

Scientists aren’t sure what it is about chocolate that seems to boost heart health. It may be related to flavonoids, a type of antioxidant produced by plants. Flavonoids are found in tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries, and nuts.

Flavonoids are particularly abundant in cacao beans—the seeds of the cacao tree. Fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao beans yields cocoa powder, which is used to make chocolate.

Flavonoids in cocoa have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots, and fight cell damage. They’ve also been shown to help thinking skills.

No chocolate prescription—yet

I routinely write my patients a prescription for exercise, and sometimes for eating more vegetables and fruits. I won’t be writing any prescriptions for chocolate in the foreseeable future.

But I won’t be telling them not to eat chocolate—in moderation of course. As the Norfolk study researchers concluded, “There does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk.”

When it comes to chocolate or cocoa flavonoids, no recommended daily amounts have been set. The European Food Safety Authority suggests that 200 mg of cocoa flavonoids per day is a good target for the general population.

The amount of cocoa used in chocolate varies a lot. To find out how much you’re getting you’ll have to do some detective work. The amount of flavonoids in chocolate is not always listed.

Your best bet is to stick with dark chocolate. As a general rule, it has more cocoa and therefore more flavonoids than milk chocolate. It also has less unhealthy sugar and saturated fat.

The higher the cocoa content of the bar, the better it is for your health. Look for bars with 70% cocoa or more.

I’m going to stick with an ounce of dark chocolate every so often—with some Chocolate Therapy in between.

Why dark chocolate is good for your heart

“We provide a more complete picture of the impact of chocolate consumption in vascular health and show that increasing flavanol content has no added beneficial effect on vascular health,” said Diederik Esser, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Top Institute Food and Nutrition and Wageningen University, Division of Human Nutrition in Wageningen, The Netherlands. “However, this increased flavanol content clearly affected taste and thereby the motivation to eat these chocolates. So the dark side of chocolate is a healthy one.”

To make this discovery, Esser and colleagues analyzed 44 middle-aged overweight men over two periods of four weeks as they consumed 70 grams of chocolate per day. Study participants received either specially produced dark chocolate with high flavanol content or chocolate that was regularly produced. Both chocolates had a similar cocoa mass content. Before and after both intervention periods, researchers performed a variety of measurements that are important indicators of vascular health. During the study, participants were advised to refrain from certain energy dense food products to prevent weight gain. Scientists also evaluated the sensory properties of the high flavanol chocolate and the regular chocolate and collected the motivation scores of the participants to eat these chocolates during the intervention.

“The effect that dark chocolate has on our bodies is encouraging not only because it allows us to indulge with less guilt, but also because it could lead the way to therapies that do the same thing as dark chocolate but with better and more consistent results,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Until the ‘dark chocolate drug’ is developed, however, we’ll just have to make do with what nature has given us!”

Chocolate and Heart Health: Yes, It’s Actually Good For You

Chocolate: the ultimate guilty pleasure. Chocolate is the candy you fit into your daily allotment after a long day of counting calories and working out. You’ve heard people say that chocolate is full of “anti-oxidants”, but that’s just an excuse to eat more, right? In reality, chocolate is more than just candy. Chocolate is packed with nutrients and scientists agree that it actually might be good for you.

Chocolate, by the numbers

Let’s start with the benefits. Chocolate is dense in nutrients. A typical dark chocolate bar contains 2 grams of fiber and 1.4 grams of protein, which help you feel full and keep you feeling full longer. Caffeine is also present – about 12 grams – so chocolate can give you a little boost of energy and alertness. The same serving size contains 12% of daily iron and 10% of daily magnesium requirement. Magnesium is an antioxidant, meaning it binds to and neutralizes free radicals that can damage the regeneration of cells in the body. Free radicals can cause LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, to form plaque in the arteries, increasing risk for heart attacks. Dark chocolate has been shown to improve circulation and lower blood pressure. Cocoa is rich in flavanols, which are associated with cardiovascular health.

What about sugar and diabetes?

Dark chocolate has a low glycemic index – generally in the 20s – meaning your body takes longer to metabolize the sugars it contains, so it will not spike your blood sugar and cause you to crash after. This effect is thought to be the reason behind chocolate’s beneficial effects on insulin resistance, which is a precursor to Type II Diabetes. This also contributes to why chocolate can make you feel fuller longer and reduces carbohydrate cravings.

Not all chocolate is the same (Darker = Better)

Not all chocolate is this good for you. Notice that these benefits are specifically for dark chocolate. A good dark chocolate is greater than 65% cacao, with few additional ingredients. Milk chocolate has some of the same benefits as dark chocolate, but a smaller percentage of cacao, which is the beneficial ingredient. White chocolate is more like a chunk of sugar and fat—not at all the same as milk or dark chocolate and does not help the heart.

Trans fats are definitely not heart healthy

Most of the fats in dark chocolate are “good” fats: monounsaturated fats and stearic acid. These fats contribute to heart health. Milk chocolate can also contain added fats that are not seen as beneficial, such as trans fat. Check the ingredients to make sure there are no added oils other than “cocoa butter” to minimize your intake of these potentially harmful fats.

What if I like a little something in my chocolate?

Fruit and candy additives like cherries or toffee will increase the calories of the chocolate and reduce the benefits. Even fruit additives usually also increase the sugar levels in the treat and work against heart health. On the other hand, nuts, such as almonds or cashews, are good for your heart and can increase the feeling of fullness. If nuts help improve the taste of dark (high percentage cacao) chocolate, go for it!

I want to eat chocolate at every meal!

Hold on, there. Of course, all these benefits don’t mean you should replace your breakfast with a chocolate bar. Chocolate is dense in fat, so it is also very calorie dense and should be eaten in moderation. At a certain point, the health risks of consuming excess fat and calories outweigh the heart health benefits of chocolate. Follow serving sizes on packages and limit yourself to one treat per day. Fortunately, dark chocolate is so rich that you likely won’t want to exceed the suggested serving size and will feel satisfied with your heart healthy snack.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *