Too good to be good? 3 Surprising health benefits of dark chocolate

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Celebrated American cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts comic strip, Charles M. Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

Chocolate has often been given a bad rap, together with all the bad labels: “too decadent”, “sinful”, “addictive”, “fattening”, “bad, bad, bad for you”. In other words, too good to be good for you.

All forms of chocolate seem to have been painted with the same “bad” brush, including dark chocolate. Understandable, since most chocolate bars today are crammed so full of sugar, syrups, additives and other processed ingredients that they hardly resemble real chocolate anyway. One glance at the nutritional information on the packaging is enough to give you heart palpitations or send you into a sweetness-induced coma.

Meanwhile, the humble, heartbroken dark chocolate bar sits on a dusty shelf, wishing you knew just how amazing he is, and how much you would benefit from having him around every now and then. Like Mr Schulz said.

Well, if Mr Schulz were around today he would be pleased to know that his observations are now fully backed by science. Any human being who has ever enjoyed a little chocolate over the last few thousand years probably had a feeling that they were tasting something pretty special. Luckily, researchers have finally caught up with what chocolate-lovers already seemed to know deep down: chocolate can actually be good for you.

More and more studies are showing that chocolate - dark chocolate, that is - holds a number of amazing health benefits that support our overall health. So, go grab a block of dark chocolate, plonk yourself down on the couch and hold onto your hat (or your cat, if you don’t have a hat…) because some of these are going to seriously blow you away.

Health benefits of dark chocolate

Dark chocolate has been shown to have many ‘magical’ properties, over and above its magical taste and texture, of course. Here are the top three health benefits of dark chocolate that most recent studies fully agree on.

1. Heart health benefits
Got a heart bursting with love for chocolatey goodness? You should! Flavonoids - powerful, natural antioxidants found in plants - seem to be among the key ingredients in dark chocolate that reduce cell damage, and support and boost heart health.
Some of the noted heart health benefits of eating dark chocolate include:
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Prevention of blood clots
  • Reduced risk of stroke
  • Reduced risk of heart disease
A 2017 study revealed a decreased risk of heart disease linked to chocolate consumption in participants. Harvard University conducted another study, stating that middle-aged and older participants who consumed 3.5 ounces (about 100 grams) of chocolate each day were less likely to suffer from heart disease compared to those who ate less. Now there are some results to warm your heart!

2. Brain health benefits
Got chocolate on your mind? Studies on the connection between consumption of dark chocolate and brain health have shown significant benefits, especially in degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Some of these benefits are actually linked to chocolate’s benefits for heart health: due to improvements in heart function, more blood and oxygen reaches the brain and more toxins get filtered out.

A small 2018 study indicated that flavonoids found in cacao may improve the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is the ability for the brain to change, adapt and rewire, particularly in response to trauma or disease. Flavonoids (and natural levels of caffeine found in cacao) are also linked to improvements in memory, attention, concentration and overall cognition.

According to the BBC, some research even showed that eating chocolate releases more endorphins than kissing! Apparently this is due to chocolate’s high concentration of phenylethylamine, a compound that decreases stress and boosts endorphin production in the brain. That feel-good mood boost is real!

3. Anti-inflammatory benefits
Inflammation is a natural immune response to a perceived threat to our bodies by our immune systems. Chronic or long-term inflammation can damage cells and tissues, which may affect our risk of developing certain conditions, like arthritis, certain cancers and type 2 diabetes.

Our diets can play a role in the presence of inflammation in our bodies. The good news is that we can also reduce inflammation by changing the way we eat. Foods that have been shown to trigger inflammation include:
  • Refined carbohydrates (Eg: white bread)
  • Fried foods (Eg: French fries)
  • Sugary drinks (Eg: soda)
  • Red and processed meats (Eg: beef, hot dogs)
  • Margarine, shortening, and lard
The powerful antioxidants (flavonoids and polyphenols) found in dark chocolate may help reduce inflammation in the body, which in turn protects some of the major organs like the heart, lungs, liver and the brain. Research has also suggested that eating anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce the risk of future chronic illnesses, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Other noted health benefits of chocolate:
  • High antioxidant levels in cacao fight oxidative stress and disease-causing free radicals in the body.
  • Flavanols have been shown to reduce risk of diabetes and insulin resistance, as they seem to improve the way our bodies metabolise glucose.
  • Quality dark chocolate contains soluble fibre to support gut health, appetite control and weight loss. Some studies have shown that dark chocolate acts as a prebiotic, a type of fibre that boosts growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
  • Flavanols have been linked to protection from sun damage, improved blood flow to the skin, collagen production and increased hydration and skin density.

What makes a good dark chocolate?

While experts agree that a good amount of flavanols can be found in chocolate with 70%+ cacao content, the higher the cacao percentage, the better. 80%+ cacao content will have less sugar, more flavanols, more minerals and will be less processed. Some well-known chocolate brands produce 90-100% cacao bars - for the more adventurous chocolate lover!

Nutrients and portions

Dark chocolate is a rich source of iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium selenium, phosphorus and other important minerals. However, it usually still contains some sugar and fats, like cocoa butter, making it a very calorie-dense food. So it’s always a good idea to check out the nutritional info at the back of the packaging. This handy chocolate-buyers guide has some great tips on choosing good chocolate products.

When it comes to chocolate (yes, even good, dark chocolate), less is always better. Sorry, chocolate addicts! But don’t worry. You only need a couple of blocks per day (about 28 grams) to reap some great health benefits. If you have tasted very dark chocolate, you’ll know that you don’t really need more than a block or two anyway - it’s that intense. 

Here are some simple ways to enjoy dark chocolate as part of your diet:

  • As is: Enjoy a block or two of dark chocolate after supper
  • In your oats: Melt or grate a little dark chocolate and stir into your morning oats
  • As a drink: Make hot chocolate with plain cocoa or dark chocolate in hot milk
  • As a dip: Melt a few blocks of dark chocolate and use as a dip for fresh fruit
  • As a coating: Dip dried fruit into some dark chocolate and sprinkle with nuts
  • In your granola: Dark chocolate chips or even roasted cacao nibs will take your blend to the next level

Some interesting (and amazing) facts about chocolate

  • The cacao bean is native to Mexico, Central America and South America, where they were cultivated as far back as 1250 BCE, possibly even earlier.
  • The first chocolate product was a hot, fermented, bitter cacao drink, brewed by ancient Mexican and Aztec peoples. The word "chocolate" translates to the Aztec word "xocolatl", which means "bitter water" - as the Aztecs didn’t have access to sugar.
  • The Aztecs loved cocoa beans so much, they even used them as currency at the height of their civilisation.
  • Most of today’s cacao is produced in Africa, which produces about 70% of the world’s supply. Interestingly, most of today’s chocolate is consumed by Europe.
  • It takes around 400-500 cocoa beans to make just one pound (about 450 grams) of good chocolate.
  • Cacao trees can live for up to 200 years, yet only produce usable cacao pods for about 25 years.
  • Chocolate milk is a proven post-workout recovery drink that helps athletes recover faster after exercise, due to its high carb / protein ratio.
  • A study that observed the in-store shopping habits of customers in a bookstore found that people were more likely to buy something when the smell of chocolate was in the air - mostly likely due to its soothing aromas!
  • Speaking of chocolate aromas, a study done by Essex University found that people were far more relaxed, paid better attention and retained more information when just the smell of chocolate was in the room!
  • Cacao and dark chocolate contain more antioxidants than most foods, including green tea, red wine, and super berries like blueberries and acai berries.

New product alert!

We are so excited to introduce you to our brand new range of sugar-free dark chocolate covered snacks:
  • Almonds coated in sugar-free dark chocolate
  • Peanuts coated in sugar-free dark chocolate
  • Raisins coated in sugar-free dark chocolate
This range of products is vegan-friendly, made from premium quality Montagu almonds, peanuts and raisins, and sugar-free chocolate with 52% cocoa from ethically-sourced cocoa beans. It has no added sugar, preservatives or artificial colourants or flavourings. In other words, these snacks are as natural as can be. You can find them at your nearest Montagu retailer or our convenient online store.

So, if you still have people telling you that chocolate is bad for you, just unwrap some dark chocolate really loudly in front of them and pretend you can’t hear them talking - you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life. Because someone wise once said, “Chocolate comes from cocoa, which is a tree. That makes it a plant. Chocolate is a salad.”
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