The Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate and How to Choose the Right Bar

When it comes to matters of the heart and the mind, the two tend to clash — except when it comes to chocolate. While we all cheered when we found out dark chocolate is good for the heart, your favorite sweet treat may help with depression and other ailments too.

The benefits of dark chocolate are far and wide, ranging from improving heart health to lowering your risk of depression. (Image: Lauri Patterson/E+/GettyImages)

Cocoa's Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Cocoa contains the polyphenols known as flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. They soak up harmful free radicals from the body. Free radical damage may lead to a broad range of age-related conditions, from arthritis to Alzheimer's disease.

Thanks to chocolate's flavonoids, cocoa may reduce risk of diabetes, protect nerves from injury and inflammation and even protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation, according to a November 2011 study in the Antioxidants & Redox Signaling journal.

Dark Chocolate May Be Good for Your Heart

There is a growing body of research showing the heart health benefits of eating dark chocolate. A February 2011 study published in Clinical Nutrition found that eating dark chocolate was associated with a decreased risk of plaque buildup in the heart. A June 2017 study published in Frontier in Immunology reported that eating dark chocolate can improve blood pressure and another measure tied to heart health — flow-mediated dilation (FMD) — which is also associated with plaque buildup in the heart.

What About Depression?

In a July 2019 study published in Depression and Anxiety, researchers found those who ate dark chocolate had 70 percent lower odds of reporting depressive symptoms compared to non-chocolate eaters. While the amount of dark chocolate consumed in the study varied greatly, the average was only 11.7 grams (about a half-ounce) — which is about one-quarter of a Hershey's bar.

So while the study participants who ate dark chocolate reported less depression, this doesn't mean that chocolate actually treats depression. Rather than depicting a cause-and-effect relationship, the study suggests a link that needs more research to explore the effect. Bottom line: Chocolate is not a replacement for treatment for depression, which is a serious mental health condition.

How to Buy the Best Chocolate

Before we go overboard with the Godiva, let's take a look at which type of chocolate is best and how much we should be eating.

Most of the health benefits associated with chocolate are tied specifically to dark chocolate, as noted in the November 2011 study. Dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of cocoa, which contains beneficial phenolic antioxidants. Milk and white chocolate have less of these compounds.

Tip

When you're shopping for chocolate, look for dark chocolate specifically: The higher the cocoa content, the better it is for your health. Your best bet is picking a chocolate bar with 70 percent cocoa or more.

And when it comes to portions, there aren't any set guidelines for how much we should (or shouldn't) be eating, although the general consensus is a maximum of one ounce per day. Chocolate is calorie-dense and often contains added sugar, so it's important to balance this out with your overall diet.

Added Sugar

Dark chocolate with 72 percent cocoa contains around 26 grams of sugar per 3.5-ounce serving. The American Heart Association recommends that women eat no more than 25 grams of added sugar and men no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day. That means that eating 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate every day provides 100 percent of the daily amount for women and around two-thirds of a man's suggested maximum. Excess sugar is linked with tooth decay, heart problems and an increased risk of obesity.

Caffeine

Cocoa contains caffeine. While small amounts of caffeine each day can be safe, larger doses may make you feel jittery, anxious or cause you to have trouble sleeping. One 3.5-ounce bar of 70 to 85 percent dark chocolate contains about 80 milligrams of caffeine, which is about the same amount found in a cup of coffee or one shot of espresso. Healthy adults should aim for no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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