There is so much research out there about the health benefits of chocolate that it can quickly become overwhelming. So, after falling over flat on our bums, we got back up, took an energy bite of an heirloom bar, and dove in. It is, after all, for a chocolatey good cause!
(Seriously, do you really need any more reasons to love dark chocolate?)
From revving up our energy levels to bursting with more antioxidants than the top super fruits, cacao reigns supreme. Check out the incredible range of areas chocolate is believed to be beneficial for:
One important note before you dash for your pantry: the health benefits of chocolate are typically associated with real, dark chocolate, not milk chocolate (regardless of what the dairy associations in your country might say). Some experts say one ounce per day, others up to 3.5 ounces. And even then, the processing that chocolate goes through does impact some of the more fragile compounds, so if you want to go hardcore, get raw cacao.
Okay. Let's get into it!
ENDURANCE & LONGEVITY
Do you know who made the first energy bar? No, not those "Space Food Sticks" they made in the 1960's. Centuries before that, Aztec warriors apparently carried cacao energy bars with them on long treks—except these weren't bars, they were cakes made of cornmeal, cacao and herbs. No wonder the warriors had so much energy!
We put "endurance and longevity" first in our list of health benefits because let's face it. If you don't care about having energy and you're not interested in living a long and fulfilling life, you might as well stop reading.
• Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that consumption of dark chocolate may boost endurance and exercise performance in moderately trained male cyclists.
• The New York Times reports in its "Well" section that researchers believe chocolate can have a suprisingly significant effect on the body's response to exercise, but at far smaller dosages than most of us would hope for. Apparently just one half of one square, and it HAS to be dark chocolate.
• Even Dr. Sanja Gupta talks about chocolate and health in this CNN video.
• A review of more than 100 research studies confirms that chocolate can improve mood and brain function, primarily due to cacao's flavonoids, namely epicatechin.
• But this doesn't mean chocolate will increase your IQ score—a randomized, double-blind study by the Swinburne University of Technology determined that flavanols in dark chocolate may help you be happier and more relaxed, but found no definitive link to enhanced cognitive performance.
• Cacao polyphenols (these include the flavonoids mentioned above) may trigger more neuroprotection than we originally thought, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. The interesting thing about this research is that previous studies focused on the antioxidant properties of the polyphenols, but this one specifically looked at their actions at cellular and molecular levels. Very cool.
Here's great news for grandma and grandpa:
• Drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may help older people stay sharp and improve their memory. (But be sure to check the ingredient list for chemicals and additives!)
• A study published in Nature Neuroscience suggests that flavanols found in cacao, tea and some vegetables can reverse mild age-related memory loss by enhancing connectivity in a region of the brain critical to memory.
• Finally, the big one... Alzheimer's and dementia. Research on mice suggests that a polyphenol-rich cacao extract may reduce nerve damage in Alzheimer’s patients before they develop symptoms. And here's a cool article about how chocolate is helping real patients. We love this quote: "It's better than Xanax."
Valentine's Day is probably the most medically accurate chocolate holiday... because chocolate does heal your heart. From overall heart health, to lowering bad cholesterol to improving the flexibility of arteries, cacao offers lots of cardiovascular benefits. Lots of research here!
• A 2015 study published in NeuroRegulation confirms the role of chocolate in heart health. In fact, several meta-analyses (studies of studies) have been done that link cacao to consistent and significant effects on the cardiovascular system, such as improved blood vessel health, cholesterol levels, and diabetes risk factors, and lower blood pressure. Some of the meta-analyses say these benefits are due to cacao's polyphenolic flavonoid antioxidants.
• Did you know? Cacao beans and organic dark chocolate are the #1 best food sources of magnesium, an important heart-supporting mineral. Magnesium deficiency is linked to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, joint problems, and PMT (pre-menstrual tension).
• Several studies have shown that dark chocolate improves artery flexibility. Dutch researchers have found that it goes a little further than that: it can actually restore this flexibility and prevent white blood cells from sticking to blood vessels walls. And, it may also help people with peripheral artery disease (PAD) walk a little better.
• 2013 research from Brazil says that the flavanols in dark chocolate help reduce blood pressure in hypertensive young people, but not so much for older people. And yet, while another study published in Nutrition Journal says even older hypertensive folks might benefit. That certainly makes sense to us...
• Dark chocolate might lower the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of blood glucose and bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) while boosting levels of good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL). If you want to get into the details on that, check out this study from Japan about cacao's "novel mechanism" for boosting HDL cholesterol. One study says it's the theobromine, not the flavanols, responsible for the cholesterol benefits. Another study, a meta-analysis of ten clinical trials, seems to challenge cacao's booster effect on HDL levels, but agrees with the reductions seen in total and LDL cholesterol levels. Our brains hurt... where's the chocolate?
• Suffering from chronic kidney disease? Cacao flavanols might improve your blood vessel function and decrease blood pressure.
• Finally, a bit of good news for the guys out there worried about chocolate causing heart arrhythmia: no link found so far! In fact, men seem to derive more benefits from chocolate in the cardiovascular area than women (we call blasphemy!).
• Nor is there reason for anyone to stop eating chocolate if they're concerned about cardiovascular risk, according to a 2014 study published in Heart, a peer-reviewed publication by the British Medical Journal.
Hurray for the heart!
• Bacteria in our tummies are, in fact, the reason why chocolate is so good for us—because they're the ones breaking down its molecules and turning them into healthy compounds our bodies can use, especially the anti-inflammatory ones. Translation: chocolate is eminently digestible.
• An industry-funded study shows that the flavanol compounds in cacao can in fact increase the good gut bacteria, and increase the long-term health benefits of having a vibrant microbiome.
• Here's something a wee bit funky to read: cocoa with fiber from cocoa bran can improve regularity, according to research from the Spanish National Research Council.
• Researchers are even working on probiotic chocolates!
WEIGHT & METABOLISM
Don't let anyone tell you ever again that chocolate makes you fat. Well, at least confirm what kind of chocolate they're talking about. The industrial, artificial additive- and sugar-overloaded kind? Sure, that can make you put on a few pounds. But not real, true, dark chocolate. The proof is in the chocolate pudding:
• European teens who eat a lot of chocolate have slimmer waistlines and lower BMIs regardless of whether they work out or diet, says a 2013 Spanish study. That sounds almost too good to be true, but apparently so! A UCSD study had come up with similar results in 2012.
• Indeed. Researchers found that cacao and green tea extracts might be beneficial for obese adults, largely due to the polyphenols in both plants.
• A particular type of flavanol—found in cacao, how did you guess—kept lab mice from gaining excess weight, and on top of that, decreased their blood sugar. So which one was it? Oligomeric procyanidins. PCs for short. Those are the little guys that apparently exhibit the greatest antiobesity and antidiabetic bioactivities of all the cacao flavanols. Good to know...
• Speaking of diabetes... cacao has got that covered too. Research by British universities has found that eating high levels of flavonoids including anthocyanins and other compounds (found in berries, tea and chocolate) could protect against type 2 diabetes. Once again mice got to eat chocolate in the name of research.
• People with advanced heart failure and type 2 diabetes, both of which illnesses damage skeletal muscle mitochondria, our "fuel" cells, improved after three months of consuming cacao enriched with epicatechin. Wow.
Can you "see" how good chocolate is for you? ;-) Sorry, couldn't help that one! But researchers are finding out that dark chocolate really might aid your vision by enhancing blood flow to the retina and brain.
• A study was published in Physiology and Behavior that suggests cacao flavonols may boost eyesight and brain health, and that the effects may last for several hours after consumption.
How about a cacao mud mask? Or a chocolate-orange peel? Maybe a theobromine lift... in all seriousness, researchers are finding that cacao (the flavanols once again) might improve skin elasticity. Now you just need to mix it with a little coconut oil and you're in business.
• A Korean study found that high-flavanol supplementation had a positive effect on facial wrinkles and elasticity in "moderately photo-aged women." That would be aging due to exposure to UV light, not cameras. So selfies are still okay. Whew!
• A study published in the Journal of Nutrition agrees: high-flavanol cacao protects skin from UV rays. And that means fewer major sun burns too.
But don't slather chocolate on your skin; you have to eat it.
Sure. Whatever works!
• Researchers discovered that theobromine, a natural chemical in cacao, relieved symptoms of acute and chronic coughs in 60 percent of (about 300) patients. Something about inhibiting the "inappropriate firing of the vagus nerve." Oh that pesky vagus nerve (what?). So they're suggesting eating a bar of chocolate a day if you can't seem to shake that cough. Twist. Our. Arms.
• Apparently someone heard about that study because now theobromine is being turned into a medicine for persistent cough. At least that was the news in 2010-2012—we'll update this if we find more related news.
• Get this: cacao's famous polyphenols can reduce the symptons of chronic fatigue syndrome! Research participants who had chocolate with high polyphenol amounts showed fewer symptoms and better Chalder Fatigue Scale scores than those given low-polyphenol chocolate.
• We've mentioned cacao's anti-inflammatory properties above. Turns out that it helps people with arthritis, reducing the inflammation. Oops, sorry, that research was done on lab rats, not people. More study is apparently needed to see how cacao can be used in conjunction with anti-inflammatory drugs.
Did you know rats could get arthritis??
• And finally, the big one. Cancer. You probably thought we'd never mention it. Well, as of 2015, the official jury is still out on whether or not cacao can actually fight cancer, although it is known that its flavonoids do fight free radicals in the bloodstream and can help remove heavy metals (aka chelation). And certain flavonoids are said to slow the growth of artificially induced cancers in experiments. But we still do not have concrete "scientific" evidence that cacao can fight cancer.
But we did find this interesting post... and a study from Cornell University that says cacao has more antioxidants than teas and red wine.
If there are any benefits or positive effects of cacao you feel we should include here, please email us—with links to the research of course!
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(You know that legally we have to say this. But we still eat dark chocolate every day!)