Don’t be tricked by the wrong kind of chocolate this Halloween
I’m not a fan of candy and other sweets. So you’d think that would create quite a dilemma when trick-or-treaters show up at my doorstep…
But I happily hand out dark chocolate to the little ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Because not only are they getting a tasty treat, but they’re also receiving a health boost.
It’s no secret that dark chocolate is “choc-full” of beneficial ingredients that significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and is one of the natural approaches to a healthy heart and blood pressure (I discuss others on page 3). Research shows it even supports mental health and cognitive function, too.
And now, a large new study shows that eating a few squares of dark chocolate daily may actually help you live longer. Plus, a trio of pioneering studies show that dark chocolate can improve everything from mood to inflammation.
But the key here is eating dark chocolate—the kind made with at least 70 percent cacao. Not the so-called “milk” chocolate, which is mostly sugar.
I’ll tell you why this distinction is so important in a moment. But first, let’s back up…
The historical importance of chocolate
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, a tropical plant that originated in Central and South America. The tree produces seed pods packed with as many as 50 cacao beans each.
Ancient Aztecs roasted cacao beans, pounded them into a powder, and then added water. They called this beverage “xocolatl,” and often added seasonings like honey or cayenne pepper to mask cacao’s bitter taste.
When Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, he discovered the drink and then brought it back home. Cacao products soon became popular across Europe, and in the mid-1700s, the Dutch began to extract the fat from cacao beans—creating cocoa butter.
This opened the door for all kinds of cocoa confections. One of the most popular being sweet chocolate—a combination of cocoa butter, powdered chocolate, and sugar. In 1875, Henri Nestlé in Europe added condensed milk to this mixture, creating milk chocolate.
The difference between milk and dark chocolate
But, as I discussed earlier, this moniker is deceiving. Milk chocolate only has to contain 10 percent cacao (in the form of “chocolate liquor”) and 12 percent milk solids, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).1
So what makes up the bulk of a milk chocolate bar? You guessed it—sugar. In fact, in your typical 1.6-ounce bar, you’ll find a whopping 23 grams of sugar.2
On the other hand, the FDA doesn’t have requirements for dark chocolate. But these treats are usually defined as containing between 70 and 100 percent cacao.
And cacao content is important for two reasons:
1) The more cacao, the less sugar and other artificial additives
2) The more cacao, the more healthy nutrients you’ll ingest
Which leads me to the key study I mentioned earlier…
Dark chocolate has a real leg up on milk chocolate
There’s clear evidence that dark chocolate can help lower risk factors of cardiovascular disease. But Italian researchers wanted to see if eating any kind of chocolate would improve symptoms of arterial disease in the legs (otherwise known as peripheral artery disease, or PAD).3
Their study involved 20 men and women, with an average age of 69, with PAD.
In the first phase of the study, participants walked on a treadmill in the morning. Then, two hours after eating 40 grams (just under 1.5 ounces) of dark chocolate that contained more than 85 percent cacao, they walked again on the treadmill. Researchers measured how far and long the participants walked during each session.
On a different day, the men and women repeated the process…except this time, they ate a milk chocolate bar with cacao content below 35 percent. Again, researchers measured walking time and distance during both sessions.
Results showed that after eating the dark chocolate, participants walked an average of 11 percent farther and 15 percent longer than they could earlier that day. But, their walking distance and time didn’t improve at all after eating milk chocolate.
How dark chocolate supports healthy aging
Researchers concluded that eating dark chocolate results in more blood supply to the legs, which allows people to walk significantly longer and farther compared with those who only eat milk chocolate.
This is important because other studies consistently show that the ability to walk well, faster, and longer is the single best predictor of longevity.
In other words, dark chocolate may actually be one of those magic “anti-aging” compounds that everyone seems to be searching for.
Researchers also noted that dark chocolate is rich in polyphenols, which likely reduce oxidative stress and improve blood flow in peripheral arteries—making it easier to walk. Milk chocolate, however, has far fewer polyphenols—and the sugar content hurts your metabolism.
In fact, researchers measured the participants’ blood levels of some of these polyphenols, including the well-known epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). And they found that levels only increased after eating dark chocolate—a much better source of EGCG than green tea, for example.
Cacao is also a major source of a type of polyphenols known as flavonoids. Which leads me to another pair of recent studies…
Dark chocolate’s role in metabolic health
Both studies were conducted in 2018 by researchers from Loma Linda University in California. Participants were given 48 grams (about 1.7 ounces) of dark chocolate (70 percent cacao and 30 percent organic cane sugar).
All participants’ blood and brainwaves were measured at baseline and then at various intervals after eating the chocolate.4,5 Results showed that consuming dark chocolate had positive benefits for inflammation and the immune system, and for memory, mood, and relaxation/stress reduction.
The authors noted this was the first study to determine the effects of dark chocolate on cognitive, endocrine, and metabolic health in humans. Amazingly, the lead researcher explained that before, his team had “looked at the influence of dark chocolate on neurological functions from the standpoint of sugar content—[meaning] the more sugar, the happier we are.”6 (It’s hard to believe that anyone could still harbor a notion like that in the first place.)
But, of course, it’s not the sugar. It’s the flavonoids.
It’s well known that cacao flavonoids are highly potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that are beneficial for brain and heart health. And these studies simply drilled into the specifics. As did another…
Results from a seminal study on chocolate and depression
In what is said to be the first study to examine how different types of chocolate affect depression, researchers analyzed data from just over 13,500 participants in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.7
Researchers looked specifically for links between symptoms of depression and chocolate consumption. Other factors from the survey, such as height, weight, marital status, ethnicity, education, income, physical activity, smoking, and chronic health conditions, were controlled to ensure the results measured only the effect of chocolate on depression.
Researchers found that people who consumed any kind of dark chocolate during two 24-hour periods had a whopping 70 percent lower risk of depression compared with those who ate no chocolate at all. And the top 25 percent of participants who consumed the most chocolate were less likely to report symptoms of depression.
In contrast, milk chocolate, “white chocolate,” and other cacao derivatives had no effect on depression.
The “magical” mood lifter
Of course, chocolate is widely reported to hold almost magical mood-enhancing properties. And many people tell me they eat chocolate when their mood is low.
There have been different theories about the chocolate-depression connection. But the one that makes the most sense to me is that cacao contains a number of ingredients that produce a feeling of euphoria, similar to cannabinoids (which are widespread in Nature—not just in marijuana).
Cacao also contains phenylethylamine, a neuromodulator thought to be important for regulating mood. And the well-known anti-inflammatory properties of the flavonoids in dark chocolate may be important, since chronic inflammation has been shown to play a role in the onset of depression (as with many chronic diseases and disorders).
Not to mention, the process of eating delicious dark chocolate can’t be separated from the experience. Meaning that the enjoyment of eating chocolate is its own mood booster.
But don’t overdo it. Both you and your Halloween visitors can benefit from this simple health treat—without any tricks—by eating just a few squares of dark chocolate a day.
3“Dark Chocolate Acutely Improves Walking Autonomy in Patients With Peripheral Artery Disease,” J Am Heart Assoc., July 2014;3(4).
7“Is there a relationship between chocolate consumption and symptoms of depression? A cross-sectional survey of 13,626 US adults.” Depress Anxiety. 2019 Jul 29.