Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

5 tips for getting the most health benefits from dark chocolate

Dark chocolate tastes sinfully indulgent, but despite its creamy texture and the way it melts in your mouth, it has surprising health benefits.

Research shows eating dark chocolate in moderation may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by improving how blood vessels function and by lowering blood pressure. Because dark chocolate enhances blood vessel function, munching on a dark chocolate bar may also be a boon for brain health.

Why do some nutritionists refer to dark chocolate as a health food? That luscious square of dark chocolate is rich in antioxidant compounds called flavonoids. In fact, dark chocolate has more antioxidant power than blueberries, an antioxidant superstar. But not all dark chocolate is equally healthy, so it pays to research before you bite. Here’s how to get the most health benefits from the dark chocolate you eat.

Choose dark chocolate with a high cacao percentage

Supermarket shelves are piled high with chocolate bars, but the cacao content can vary greatly from product to product. The percent of cacao refers to what percentage of a dark chocolate bar is cacao beans by weight. The remainder is cocoa butter, a source of fat, and other additives such as sugar. Since more cacao means more antioxidants, a higher cacao percentage means a bar is likely to provide your body with more antioxidants. A higher percent of cacao usually means a bar has less sugar, too.

SWEET NIBS • Cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans that have a bitter, chocolatey flavor. They are loaded with nutrients and have been shown to benefit health.

For health benefits, look for a dark chocolate bar that has a cacao percentage of 70 percent or greater. The higher you go with the percent of cacao, the more bitter the bar will taste. So, start with a lower percentage and work your way up as your taste buds adapt. Be sure that the dark chocolate you buy isn’t Dutch-processed or processed with alkali, as this destroys many of the heart-healthy antioxidants.

Enjoy hot cocoa

Nibbling on a dark chocolate bar isn’t the only way to get the health benefits of dark chocolate. Sipping hot cocoa made with raw cacao powder is another way to get the antioxidants that make dark chocolate a healthy snack. In fact, the Kuna Indians, a group that lives off the coast of Panama and consumes over 5 cups of cocoa per day each, has very low rates of cardiovascular disease and exceptionally long life spans. Scientists believe their cocoa drinking habits may contribute to their health and longevity. However, they drink unprocessed cocoa that’s unusually high in flavonoids. Look for raw, unprocessed cocoa you can disolve in water at home, too.

Watch the sugar

One drawback of some chocolate is its high sugar content, but with so many options you can choose one that is lower in sugar. No point in eating something healthy and offsetting the health benefits by consuming too much sugar! Look for a dark chocolate bar with 70 percent cacao and 6 grams of sugar per serving or less. Such bars are relatively easy to find these days, considering how popular dark chocolate is. Don’t grab the first bar you see. Read the label.

Avoid heavy metals

For something so healthy, dark chocolate also has a dark side. Testing of cocoa products by independent labs found that over half contain lead and cadmium above levels that some regulatory agencies deem safe. These metals enter cocoa beans from the soil or are a product of the way manufacturers process chocolate.

How do you know which are safe? Some independent labs like Consumer Lab do independent testing of chocolate samples from specific companies and publish the results. If you’re concerned about heavy metals in the brand of chocolate you eat, consult with Consumer Lab or the company that makes the chocolate. In general, the amount is higher in cocoa products than in dark chocolate bars and cacao nibs. One reassurance is that most people don’t eat enough dark chocolate to get a large amount of lead or cadmium, but it’s something to be aware of if you eat a lot of chocolate.

Don’t combine dark chocolate with dairy

If you make hot cocoa, use a non-dairy milk alternative such as almond milk or coconut milk. There’s some evidence that the catechins in dairy milk deactivate the antioxidants in cocoa. In one study, milk reduced the antioxidant activity of dark chocolate by 30 percent. However, there isn’t strong evidence that combining milk with chocolate or cocoa reduces all the health benefits, but to be sure, lighten up on the dairy when you eat or drink it.