The sweet side of health: Six reasons chocolate is actually good for you

While too much chocolate isn’t great for the waistline, it can have some surprising health benefits.

We’re a nation of chocolate lovers. A recent study by Mintel, found that a staggering 95% of us indulge in chocolate regularly, with four in five of us eating it at least once a week.

This love affair goes way back – civilizations in Mesoamerica cultivated the cacao tree millennia ago, crafting the first chocolate beverages. But what is it about chocolate that keeps us reaching for more? The rich, complex flavour certainly plays a part, while some believe it even has mood-boosting properties.

But here’s the surprising twist: chocolate might not just be a delicious treat. Recent research suggests it may offer some health benefits too, so you can indulge with a little less guilt.

Dark chocolate on a wooden slab illustrating the health benefits of chocolateCredit: Shutterstock/Gulsina
Chocolate may actually be a superfood – who knew?

The power of cocoa

What’s so good about chocolate?

Registered nutritionist Rob Hobson, author of Unprocess Your Life, explains that the health benefits of chocolate hinge on its origin: the cocoa bean.

Hobson highlights the bean’s abundance of “biologically active phenolic compounds,” which offer a range of advantages, including improved cardiovascular and brain health.

He says: “It’s rich in essential minerals, offering iron for healthy red blood cell production, magnesium for bone health and energy conversion, phosphorus for strong bones, potassium for fluid balance and heart function, zinc for cell production and wound healing, and copper for creating blood cells and improving iron utilisation.”

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Benefits for your body

Science-backed ways chocolate can help your health

Thanks to the power of cocoa, there are many ways in which chocolate can be a health hero – from reducing heart disease to even lowering cholesterol.

1. Reduce the risk of heart disease

A study by Cambridge University shows that a high cocoa consumption is linked to a 37% decrease in heart disease risk, as well as a 29% decrease in a having a stroke.

Nutritional therapist Lucia Stansbie says that cacao contains theobromine, a natural compound that belongs to the methylxanthine family – and this could help with heart health.

“Theobromine has been shown to have mild stimulant effects and may also have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health,” she says. “Studies suggest that theobromine may help lower blood pressure by promoting vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels), which can improve blood flow and reduce strain on the heart.”

2. Lower cholesterol

Regular dark chocolate consumption has been linked to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. In fact, one study showed that combining dark chocolate with almonds might even reduce a risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Hobson explains the potential mechanism: “Cocoa boasts antioxidant-rich polyphenols that can improve cholesterol profiles by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, raising HDL (good) cholesterol, and preventing LDL oxidation.”

3. Reduce insulin sensitivity

It seems counterintuitive that chocolate could actually help lower insulin and blood sugar levels, but various studies have shown that dark chocolate does indeed have a positive effect on these.

It is thought that this is down to the polyphenols in cacao. These are anti-inflammatory antioxidants, which protect the body from damage caused by harmful molecules. In turn these then improve how well insulin works in the body.

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4. Balances the immune system

The same polyphenols in cocoa that benefit blood sugar also give your immune system a boost. They act as a double treat: first, by preventing the immune system from overreacting, and second, by reducing oxidative stress. This imbalance, caused by cells fighting free radicals, is linked to many diseases.

Interestingly, research also suggests these polyphenols contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. This microbiome plays a crucial role in regulating your immune response, ensuring it targets threats like injuries or infections without harming healthy tissue.

Benefits for your brain

It’s not a just physical health booster

Move over, superfoods! Dark chocolate’s health benefits extend beyond the physical. Research suggests it might also be a boon for brain health.

5. A mood booster

Is there anything nicer than that first bite of chocolate? Not only does eating chocolate feel good, but it can actually boost your mood.

“Cacao contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter often referred to as the feel-good hormone,” explains Stansbie.

“Serotonin helps regulate mood, sleep, and appetite, and low levels of serotonin have been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.”

This could be connected to how chocolate interacts with our gut bacteria. A Korean study showed improved mood in participants who consumed 85% dark chocolate. Interestingly, these participants also had a more diverse gut microbiome, suggesting that chocolate may improve negative moods through the gut-brain connection.

6. Improves cognitive function

A small study tested if flavanols in chocolate affect memory. Adults carried out a memory task twice after consuming chocolate with high or low flavanols. Interestingly, those with the low-flavanol chocolate performed worse the second time around, while memory held steady for those with the high-flavanol chocolate.

Robson says this is likely due to the magnesium and polyphenols contained within it.

“It reduces inflammation related to brain fog and shows promise in improving memory and reasoning in studies, which has sparked interest its potential for dementia research,” he says.

Ditch the protein shakes, for chocolate!

It seems eating chocolate may even help you keep fit.

“One of the main benefits of eating chocolate before a workout is it can actually improve your physical performance,” says James Brady, nutrition coach at OriGym.

“As chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, these are natural stimulants which can help increase your energy levels, giving you a more effective workout.”

He says a square or two of dark chocolate can even work well as a post-workout snack, as it may help your muscles recover faster.

“This is important as helping your muscles recover successfully means they’ll grow back stronger, allowing you to perform the same workout with less effort each time,” he says.

Choose the right chocolate

Which chocolate is the healthiest?

Sadly, a family-sized bar of milk chocolate is not on the list here.

“The darker the chocolate, the higher the cocoa powder content,” says Stansbie. “It is better to opt for raw chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa powder (70% and above) to maximise antioxidant intake.”

And not all dark chocolate is made to the same quality – and of course it does still contain plenty of fat and sugar.

“Cadbury’s Bourneville chocolate is a very popular type of dark chocolate but, when you take a look at its nutritional content, it’s not that different from your average bar of Dairy Milk,” says Emma Thornton, a qualified nutritionist at Avogel.

“It still contains 13 grams of fat and 26 grams of sugar, which is only a gram lower than Dairy Milk – so you’re unlikely to notice much change by switching to that kind of dark chocolate.”

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How much chocolate should you eat?

Small amounts only

Many of the above studies gave their participants between 20-30g of chocolate a day. That’s around two squares of chocolate.

Dr Michael Mosley says that he allows himself no more than two squares a day. Writing in the Daily Mail, he said: “I often allow myself the late-afternoon (or post-dinner-time) luxury of a couple of small squares of dark chocolate.

“It helps satisfy my cravings for something sweet, while at the same time offering potential health benefits.”

Alternatives to chocolate

It’s time to go raw…

Most nutrients associated with the health benefits of chocolate are found in raw cacao, so if you really want to ensure you’re making the most out of your chocolate consumption, it’s best to eat ‘chocolate’ this way, choosing raw chocolate and cacao nibs.

“Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans, which actually helps to preserve their nutritional content,” explains Thornton. “This means that it does actually contain quite a high level of antioxidants and minerals.”

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Raw chocolate and cacao nibs – what are they?

Raw chocolate is chocolate made from unroasted cacao beans processed below temperatures of around 118°F (48°C) to preserve enzymes and often contains no refined sugar or dairy. It’s mostly sold in bars, but can also be found in other formats, such as buttons.

Cacao nibs (or cocoa nibs) are crunchy bits of fermented, dried, and optionally roasted cocoa beans. These tiny pieces, the raw base of chocolate, boast a bitter chocolate flavour and a bit more crunch than most nuts. For an extra nutritional punch, look for raw cacao nibs that skip the roasting step.

How to add cacao to your diet

While raw dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants, Stansbie says you still need to eat a balanced diet to enjoy the benefits.

“Some raw dark chocolate powder or cacao nibs can be enjoyed daily in small quantities to see health benefits in the long term, however, try to maximise them by mixing them with other antioxidants sources.”

Here are some examples to try:

  • Adding both fresh berries and cacao nibs to your morning porridge
  • Use them instead of chocolate chips in biscuit and brownie recipes
  • Blend them into smoothies
  • Add them to yogurt or ice cream

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Jayne Cherrington-Cook

Written by Jayne Cherrington-Cook she/her

Published:

Jayne is the Senior Editor at Saga Exceptional. She cut her online journalism teeth 24 years ago in an era when a dialling tone and slow page load were standard. During this time, she’s written about a variety of subjects and is just at home road-testing TVs as she is interviewing TV stars. A diverse career has seen Jayne launch websites for popular magazines, collaborate with top brands, write regularly for major publications including Woman&Home, Yahoo! and The Daily Telegraph, create a podcast, and also write a tech column for Women’s Own.

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