It may not surprise you to learn that the cacao beans used to make chocolate come from the Theobroma cacao tree, which translates to “food of the gods.” But chocolate isn’t just legendary for its taste. It’s also a low-carb, keto-friendly, nutrient-dense superfood… provided you get the right type.
So, what sets real healthy chocolate apart from the imposter Hershey’s bars or Cadbury Eggs that give this remarkable food a bad reputation? To answer that question, we need to learn a little bit about how the cacao bean from the god tree gets processed. Once cacao beans are harvested, they are fermented (yep, just like kimchi or wine) and then dried in the sun. In the best-case scenario, chocolate ends its journey here. The fermented and dried cacao beans can be eaten as is, turned directly into chocolate, or ground into cacao powder. Any chocolate product for which the sole ingredient in “cacao” is a winner!
But most chocolate goes on to be roasted, at which point the “cacao” loses it’s a+ health status and becomes “cocoa.” The reason roasted chocolate is less nutritious is that heating destroys many of the healthy antioxidants and other compounds found in chocolate, which we will get to in a bit. Cocoa can be crushed into “nibs,” ground into “baker chocolate,” and melted into “liquor.” Chocolate liquor can be separated into “cocoa butter” (fat) and “cocoa mass” (remaining powder). The butter and mass are recombined with sugar to make chocolate bars of different “percentages.”
Congratulations! You now speak chocolate-ese and know that the leading “A”s in cacao stand for A+ health.
Now that we’re all on the same page when it comes to what we mean by “chocolate,” let’s discuss why chocolate is a superfood! Let’s start with macronutrients. 100% dark chocolate actually contains more protein and fiber than net carbs! Chocolate also has an interesting fat profile, being about equal parts stearic acid, palmitic acid, and oleic acid. We won’t go into the nitty-gritty scientific details here, but suffice it to say that these balance of fats should be healthy. (If you want to learn more about different fatty acids, click here.)
Chocolate is also packed with minerals, including copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium and iron. In fact, cacao is the best-known plant-based source of iron and also contains three-times the iron density of red meat. (Admittedly, animal-sourced heme iron is more bioavailable. Wait, did someone say “chocolate jerky?”)
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chocolate is fat with “flavanol” antioxidants and other beneficent micronutrients that have amazing health benefits. As some noncomprehensive (I’m not writing an encyclopedia here) case in points, let’s talk about how chocolate can help the heart, the gut, and the brain!
Starting with the heart, flavanol-rich dark chocolate can decrease blood pressure and increase blood flow to the heart (mechanism: increasing the producing of a gas hormone called nitric oxide) (1). Chocolate can also decrease blot clotting, which especially important when one considers that atherosclerotic plaques are internal blood clots (mechanism: decreasing thromboxane A2 to inhibit platelet aggregation) (1). And as the kicker, chocolate increases HDL good cholesterol, decreased LDL cholesterol and LDL oxidation, and decreases triglycerides (1). Basically, the American Heart Association should replace statins with chocolate (this is not official medical advice).
Turning to the gut, chocolate is a fermented food and, like kimchi, is probiotic. The overflow of flavanols not absorbed in the small intestine end up feeding healthy gut bacteria in the colon and decreasing inflammation (1). For example, in a randomized, double-blind, crossover human study (a.k.a. a really good type of study), drinking a cacao drink for 4-weeks increased the number of healthy anti-inflammatory Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species and decreased the number of inflammatory Clostridium species. This change in bacteria correlated with a 30% decrease in inflammation (2).
Of course, a happy tummy heralds a happy mind. But, in the case of chocolate, the relationship isn’t simply psychological. Chocolate takes mental health a step further because it is rich in the love molecule, “phenethylamine,” (3) the bliss chemical, “anandamide,” and the happiness hormone, “serotonin.” As these good mood hormones are only present in real chocolate, it’s not entirely surprising that a population study of 13,626 adults found that, even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, BMI, and daily sugar intake, dark chocolate consumption specifically, but not milk or white chocolate consumption, was associated with a 70% reduced risk of depression. (4).
Be kind to your mind and eat some chocolate that’s unrefined!
While happiness always wins, cognitive longevity is important too. Luckily, chocolate has a role to play in fighting Alzheimer’s disease. For one, cacao flavanols increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like miracle-grow for brain cells (1). Cacao extracts and BDNF have even been shown to protect human neurons from amyloid toxicity, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (5). What’s more, in a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease, rats fed dark chocolate for three months exhibited improved cognitive performance (6).
Chocolate may not make you immortal completely, but we still contend it deserves it title as “food of the gods.”
Take Home Message
“Cacao” is the most natural form of chocolate and confers the greatest health benefits.
Dark chocolate is low-carb and packed with healthy fats, minerals like copper, manganese, potassium magnesium and iron, antioxidant flavanols, and many more healthy micronutrients.
The unique cocktail of compounds in chocolate may reduce heart disease risk, improve gut health, treat inflammatory disorders, enhance mood, and protect the brain against cognitive decline.
No medical advice
The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.