November 9, 2021
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really need an excuse to eat chocolate. Between occasionally swapping my morning coffee for cacao tea, to throwing in a handful of cacao nibs to my smoothies, to topping off dinner with dark chocolate or chocolate-flavored ice cream, the delicious treat is legitimately a staple in my daily diet.
Am I just a dangerously addicted choco-holic? Perhaps. As you’ll learn in this article, chocolate has unique “psychoactive compounds” that make your brain really, really like it.
But besides the rich, decadent taste, for much of my life, I've intentionally had chocolate just about every day because of its potent health benefits—including everything from improving cardiovascular health, to increasing nitric oxide production, and even preventing early skin aging.
Of course, if you heard my latest podcast with Teri Cochrane about the nutrition testing she did for me and my family, I can't eat too much chocolate these days due to the oxalate content, and the fact that I personally tend to be a bit more sensitive to oxalates than the average person (you can learn more about low-oxalate diets here). Yet, I'm still a fan of what I consider to be both a tasty dessert and a healthy superfood.
So, in this article, you’ll learn a whole choco-lot, including the fascinating history of chocolate as a superfood for warriors, the unique compounds in it that make it so healthy, what factors you should look for in healthy chocolate, whether there’s actually a difference between cocoa and cacao. And then, next week—in Part 2 of this article—I'll tell you all about my top choices for the healthiest, guilt-free chocolate bars.
The Rich History & Benefits Of Chocolate
Today’s Hershey’s bar couldn’t look more different than the traditional cacao enjoyed by your ancestors.
In fact, the history of chocolate began not with it as a sweet treat, but in the form of a bitter, sacred beverage reserved exclusively for male warriors and priests; as an offering during cultural and spiritual ceremonies; and even as a currency.
Civilization's love affair with chocolate started with raw cacao beans, the seeds of the Theobroma cacao (Greek for “food of the gods”), a tropical evergreen tree native to the Americas.
Experts aren’t entirely certain when chocolate was “invented,” but its first use has been dated back to the ancient Olmecs (1500 B.C.)—the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization—who consumed ground cacao as a ceremonial drink. The cacao craze continued to gather steam with the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, who essentially worshipped it as a “gift from the gods” and even used cacao beans as currency.
In other words, ancient chocolate was basically as good as gold. I dig it.
Interestingly, among the Aztecs, cacao was consumed only by adult males—such as priests, government officials, military officers, distinguished warriors, and the occasional sacrificial victim. This is because Aztecs perceived cacao to be a powerful, intoxicating food, and therefore unsuitable for women and children (sorry, ladies).
Aztec ruler Montezuma II was even reported to have consumed gallons of chocolate every day “for energy and as an aphrodisiac” (benefits that have indeed been backed up by modern science, but I’ll get to that in just a minute).
The selective use of ancient chocolate couldn’t be further from how it is consumed today, in which it is frequently gifted to lovers in the form of heart-shaped boxes, and shoved willy-nilly into everything from children’s Halloween buckets to Christmas stockings, Easter baskets, and more.
When cacao made its way to Spain around the 1500s, choco-mania spread like wildfire throughout Europe.
However, Europeans preferred to sweeten up their cacao beverages with cane sugar, cinnamon, and other spices—creating the initial version of the modern-day, sugary-sweet “hot chocolate.”
Even still, chocolate continued to be revered as a medicinal food. European and Spanish manuscripts from the 16th-20th centuries revealed more than one hundred medicinal uses for cacao. According to an article in the Journal of Nutrition, “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate”, there were three major historical uses of chocolate as medicine:
- To help emaciated patients gain weight;
- To stimulate the nervous system of an apathetic, exhausted, or feeble patient;
- And to improve digestion and elimination, stimulating the kidneys and improving bowel function.
Chocolate was also used as a vehicle for other medicines and bioactive compounds in order to make them more palatable and easier to consume, especially for children.
In 1641, chocolate arrived on American shores. It quickly became a household staple and major import by 1773—even before America officially became a country!
However, like many foods or compounds that were historically consumed in their whole, natural form (such as chewing gum), as worldwide demand for cacao increased, processing methods were invented to make it easier and cheaper to produce. Thus, minimally processed cacao beverages quickly turned into industrialized, sweetened milk chocolate bars.
Cacao beans became cocoa powder when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to create a powder (AKA, Dutch Cocoa). Chocolate beverages became chocolate bars when, in 1847, British chocolatiers discovered how to separate the fats and solids of chocolate, and created a paste made of sugar, chocolate liquor, and cocoa butter.
Nestle, one of the biggest mass-producers of chocolate today, was started when Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter began mass-producing chocolate bars with milk added, making them even sweeter and creamier. A few years later, Swiss chocolatier, Rudolf Lindt, found a way to soften chocolate and make it easier to blend—later developing the chocolate truffle.
Fast forward to today, where most of the chocolate on grocery stores shelves has been highly processed, bastardized with sugar, milk, and preservatives, and frankly, includes very little chocolate at all.
And that is how civilization got from ancient, medicinal raw cacao drinks to the sugar-laden, diabetes-inducing chocolate bars lining the grocery store checkout aisles today.
But, fear not, if you're a chocolate lover (and who isn't?). All is not lost. As I mentioned, there are a growing number of companies today developing chocolate that’s closer to what your ancestors enjoyed, and thus, choc-full (heh) of health benefits.
4 Big Health Benefits Of Chocolate
In the last several decades, scientists have started to unwrap what your ancestors once understood about chocolate.
Chocolate isn’t just food, it’s medicine.
The growing body of research on chocolate shows it may be able to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Support healthy cholesterol levels
- Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Improves vascular health by enhancing blood flow
- Improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism
- Prevent skin wrinkles and protect against UV damage
- Boost cognitive function and provide neuroprotective effects
- Promote regulatory effects on immune cells involved in innate and acquired immunity
- And much, much more…
What is it about chocolate that makes it so darn good for you?
Turns out, there are four main substances in chocolate that impart many of these health benefits: antioxidants, fatty acids, minerals, and psychoactive compounds.
Many of the health benefits of chocolate come from its high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols (compounds found in plants), including the following:
- Flavanols, a subgroup of flavanoids which are naturally occurring, health-promoting compounds found in plants
- Procyanidins, another subclass of flavonoids which may protect the heart and cardiovascular system
- Anthocyanins, colored water-soluble plant pigments with potent antioxidant effects
These compounds are well-known to have a number of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, supporting healthy nerve function, boosting brain health and mood, and even enhancing longevity through activating anti-aging sirtuins (a family of signaling proteins involved in metabolic regulation).
The flavanols in chocolate can also upregulate nitric oxide (NO) production. NO is an essential vasodilator that allows blood, nutrients, and oxygen to flow throughout your body. Strategies to boost NO in the body—such as eating more chocolate—can help lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and promote better sexual function, among other things.
In fact, due to its ability to upregulate or increase nitric oxide, chocolate used to be my backstage bodybuilding go-to for enhancing blood flow, vascularity, and making my veins and muscles really “pop.” For this same reason, a post-dinner chunk of dark chocolate along with a glass of red wine is perfect for a romantic night with your partner (wink, wink).
As discussed in my recent podcast with Dr. James DiNicolantonio, author of The Mineral Fix, 1 out of 3 people in the United States has at least 10 minerals in which they are deficient: potassium, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, chromium, molybdenum, and boron.
These mineral deficiencies increase your risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In addition to the plethora of tips I discussed with James in the podcast, increasing your intake of dark chocolate may be another way to make sure you’re shored up on minerals. For instance, if you were to scarf down 100 grams of 70–85% dark chocolate (which you probably shouldn’t do often, since it’s about 3x a normal serving size), you’d be getting approximately:
- 67% RDA for iron
- 58% RDA for magnesium
- 89% RDA for copper
- 98% RDA for manganese
Pretty impressive, right? That’s my kind of mineral multi-vitamin.
3. Fatty Acids
Chocolate’s fat component provides a healthy mixture of monounsaturated (oleic acid) and saturated fatty acids (palmitic and stearic acid).
That's right…cocoa butter.
Oleic acid is the same omega-9 monounsaturated fat that gives olive oil many of its heart-healthy benefits. It promotes fluidity of cell membranes, supports transporting minerals, and synthesizes many important hormones and metabolites.
Saturated fat, on the other hand, continues to be demonized as a contributor to cardiovascular disease. However, if you’ve listened to my podcasts with Dr. Stephen Hussey, Dr. James DiNicolantonio, or Dr. Tom Cowan, you know saturated fat isn’t the evil villain nor the sole cause of heart disease like it's been portrayed.
In fact, studies on populations that consume large amounts of traditional cocoa (not highly processed, sugary chocolate) generally have better cardiovascular health than those that don’t.
One such example is an observational study on the Kuna Indians of Panama—who on average consume a whopping 30 ounces of cacao per day. When compared to mainland Panamanians, the prevalence of hypertension (high blood pressure) among the Kuna islanders is very low (2.2%), as are rates of diabetes mellitus, myocardial infarction, stroke, and cancer. However, in populations of Kuna who’ve migrated to urban areas and are consuming much less, if any cocoa, hypertension rates are much higher (10.7 – 45%).
Therefore, researchers have hypothesized that the high intake of traditional cocoa—despite containing saturated fat—may be partly responsible for the low incidence of cardiovascular disease among the Kuna islanders.
4. Psychoactive Compounds
Ever wonder why chocolate is so dang hard to resist? Or why it’s impossible to limit yourself to just one measly square, despite your best intentions?
Well, it’s not just because it tastes so delicious.
The pure, childlike unique enjoyment you experience from diving into some chocolate is in part caused by “psychoactive effects” that take place in your brain, triggered by a unique combination of several naturally occurring compounds.
Chocolate is literally a pharmacopeia of mind-altering substances. Some of the most prominent include:
- Endocannabinoids like anandamide often referred to as the “bliss molecule”
- Terpenes, including myrcene, linalool, and ocimene—which have calming and mood-boosting effects
- Xanthines like theobromine and caffeine, mild stimulants that can improve blood flow and cognitive function
- Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can boost serotonin levels
As you can see, chocolate can—and arguably should—be part of a healthy diet. Between its high antioxidant content, minerals, fatty acids, and feel-good compounds, there’s no surprise why it’s been a revered food and medicine for thousands of years.
However, no surprise here—whether or not chocolate is “good for you” highly depends on the quality and type of chocolate you’re consuming.
What Makes Chocolate “Healthy”
It’s clear: Chocolate can be really, really good for you—just as long as you’re selective about the kind you’re eating.
So, next, I'll discuss a few factors that determine whether your chocolate is a health food or just another diabetes-inducing dessert.
If you’ve read as many chocolate bar labels as I have (hundreds? thousands?), I bet you’ve noticed a whole swath of different, somewhat confusing terms: cacao, cocoa, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, cocoa powder, etc.
What’s the difference between them all? And do they affect the healthiness of your chocolate?
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there on this topic, and even as a lifelong chocolate lover, I myself was also uncertain about the answers. So, needless to say, I did a deep dive to figure it out.
Here’s the fascinating process of how you get from “cacao” to “chocolate,” and what each term actually means:
- Cacao: “Cacao” refers to the beans derived from the Theobroma cacao tree. The word also usually applies to any unroasted, fermented, and dried version, such as cacao nibs or cacao powder.
- Cocoa: Once the cacao has been roasted, it becomes “cocoa.” From there, it’s often crushed into “cocoa nibs.”
- Cocoa Liquor: Not to be confused with an alcoholic beverage, “cocoa liquor” simply refers to the paste that results from grinding cocoa nibs into a paste.
- Cocoa Butter: When you separate the fat from cocoa liquor, it’s called “cocoa butter.”
- Cocoa Powder: “Cocoa powder” is made by removing some of the cocoa butter from the cocoa liquor, sifting it, and grinding it into a fine powder.
- Chocolate: Chocolate today is essentially the combination of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and a sweetener.
Congratulations. You’re officially a chocolate-making expert.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. There’s a circulating belief in the health and wellness world that cacao is healthier than cocoa because it’s “raw” and therefore may contain more antioxidants and beneficial compounds. Turns out, this is a myth. For a food to be technically considered “raw” it must a) not be processed in any form, and b) not be heated above 92-118 degrees F. However, in order to put cacao into any sort of food product, you must, by definition, process it, and also dry it at a temperature above the threshold.
Therefore, unless you’re eating the cacao pulp straight from the pod (which apparently isn’t very appetizing), your cacao is probably not raw, it just hasn’t been roasted. In other words, while cacao may be slightly less processed than cocoa, the argument that it’s better for you because it’s “raw” doesn’t actually hold up in practice.
It could certainly be hypothesized that more antioxidants are preserved in unroasted cacao, but because chocolate companies use the terms interchangeably, it’s still hard to determine whether your chocolate has “cacao” or “cocoa” in the first place! Instead, I think it’s more reliable to look at the actual cacao/cocoa content of your chocolate to determine its health qualities.
*Fun fact that may confuse you even more but will surely help you towards becoming a Trivia Night Champ: English is the only language that has two different words (cacao and cocoa) for the different processing steps of chocolate. All other languages just have one. In fact, the origin of the English word “cocoa” may have been simply due to a spelling mistake (or purposeful decision to make it easier to pronounce) when converting the word “cacao” from Spanish to English!
In addition to cacao/cocoa content, there are two other major factors that you should consider when evaluating the health of your chocolate—sugar and artificial sweeteners, and sourcing. Here's what you need to know:
1. Cacao/Cocoa Content
When it comes to the % of chocolate in your chocolate bar (e.g. 75% cacao) the words cacao and cocoa are also used interchangeably.
Man, these chocolatiers really need to get on the same page. But for the purposes of simplicity, I'm just going to call it “cocoa content.”
Cocoa content tells you the amount of cocoa derivatives (cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder) relative to other ingredients such as sugar, milk, or preservatives. It also describes how “dark” your chocolate is. 100% dark chocolate means it’s literally just cocoa, while 50% is half cocoa, half other stuff.
- 24-30% cocoa: 1.8 mmol/100 g antioxidants
- 40-65% cocoa: 7.2 mmol/100 g antioxidants
- 70-99% cocoa: 10.9 mmol/100 g antioxidants
Darker chocolate is also higher in minerals like magnesium, selenium, and zinc. For these reasons, plus the fact that darker chocolate is lower in sugar, I tend to opt for 70% and above.
2. Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Unless your chocolate is 100% cacao (which is respectful, but also slightly masochistic), it will most likely have some amount of sweetener added.
How much, and what kind of sweetener is used, is another factor in how it impacts your health.
I’ve covered the topic of sweeteners many times, including in a recent Q&A podcast: How To Get Carbs On A Carnivore Diet, The 4 Laws Of Muscle, How To Recover Faster, Which Artificial Sweeteners Are OK To Consume & Much More.
So to avoid beating this horse to death once again, here are some general guidelines to help you navigate commonly used sweeteners:
- Artificial sweeteners: Saccharin, Aspartame, Sucralose, Neotame, Acesulfame-K
- Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup
- Consume in moderation:
- Organic cane sugar
- Tapioca syrup
- Agave syrup
- Sugar alcohols: Erythritol, Xylitol, Sorbitol, Mannitol, Maltitol*
*Avoid/limit if these cause you digestive upset (gas, bloating, etc.)
- Healthiest choices:
- Coconut sugar
- Monk fruit extract
Personally, I will usually choose food products with a few grams of natural sugar from something like cane sugar, over those with “zero sugar,” but are instead loaded with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols—as I believe natural sugar is a more biologically appropriate choice.
When buying chocolate, you should also be aware that the cocoa industry tends to be saturated with corruption, unfair treatment of workers, child labor, and environmental degradation.
Luckily, many companies are now taking steps to source their cocoa from small farms that pay their workers a fair price and use sustainable agricultural practices.
If you’d rather support these companies, look out for chocolate that has certifications like:
- Direct Trade
- Fair for Life
- Rainforest Alliance
Additionally, choosing USDA Certified Organic chocolate will ensure more environmentally-friendly farming practices as well as ingredients that are Non-GMO. Organic also means the cacao was likely grown in more nutrient-dense soil, which could translate to more nutrient-dense chocolate as well.
If you want to know more about which chocolate companies meet these standards, check out this guide in Ethical Consumer.
While chocolate often gets a pretty bad rap in the health world, it can actually be used to enhance your health rather than harm it.
Thankfully, plenty of studies have in recent years have backed up the health benefits of chocolate, validating what civilization has known for centuries.
Still, you have likely been conditioned to think that chocolate is a sugary concoction of cavities, diabetes, and unhealthy weight gain, among many other reasons to pass on the Hershey's. But the conversation surrounding chocolate has clearly evolved to support inclusion of chocolate in your diet on a regular basis (and isn't that great news).
To recap the overview of the benefits of regular chocolate consumption above:
- Chocolate can help lower blood pressure, support healthy cholesterol levels, and more
- It can reduce the overall risk of cardiovascular disease
- Chocolate also helps improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism
- Consumption of chocolate can help reduce skin damage and help prevent early skin aging
- It's rich in flavanols like epicatechin and catechin, which help protect your cells from inflammation, improve your brain function, and more
- The best kind of chocolate is lacking artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, etc.
- Just because you consume raw cacao over good old fashioned chocolate or cocoa doesn't necessarily make it healthier
Hopefully, this article has helped you to realize that chocolate isn't bad for you. Of course, moderation is important, but what you've been taught about chocolate is probably mostly myth. So, you can rejoice in the fact that adding chocolate to your regular diet may indeed benefit your overall health (and you also have bragging rights in being able to eat chocolate regularly in the faces of those who still think chocolate is the bane of their existence. Ha!)
As studies of the health-advancing properties of chocolate continue to be published, I hope to see more and more people enjoying chocolate and thriving via the advantages and welfare of such a delectable dessert and superfood. In next week's article, you'll learn about my favorite chocolate brands, so get ready to stock up and savor—all while taking advantage of the sweet chocolately health benefits.
What do you think about chocolate? Do you eat it regularly? Do you not eat it regularly due to what you've been told about chocolate throughout your life? If not, what's stopping you from working chocolate into your regular diet, even gradually? I'm happy to answer any and all questions if you post them below and get the discussion going.