Studies suggest antioxidant-rich dark chocolate with at least 50 to 70 percent cacao enhances blood flow, improves gut health, and eases stress — all effects that may indirectly strengthen your immune system.
Dark chocolate is one of the anomalies of nutrition. Researchers have been intrigued by the bittersweet superfood for years, not only because it is incredibly delicious and satisfies your sweet tooth, but also because there are dozens of scientific studies suggesting there are an overwhelming number of health benefits in this nutrient- and antioxidant-rich treat.
“Chocolate would be delicious no matter its health properties. So, the idea that something so good can also be good for us is both appealing and compelling,” David L. Katz, MD, MPH, the president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University Griffin Hospital, who has spent much of his career studying the health benefits of chocolate. “Chocolate is the decisive rebuttal to the ‘If it’s good for me, it can’t taste good’ mentality.”
As for the science, dark chocolate is derived from Theobroma cacao, aka, the cacao tree. Dr. Katz says it’s a uniquely concentrated source of bioflavonoid antioxidants, ranking high on the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale relative even to many fruits and vegetables.
In 2011, Katz coauthored a study published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling focusing on the many benefits of the superfood. In it, he and his colleagues explained that cocoa powder contains up to 50 milligrams of polyphenols per gram, with a single serving containing more phenolic antioxidants than most foods and drinks, including apples, cranberry juice, red wine, and black tea. The main flavonols found in cocoa are epicatechin and catechin, as well as procyanidins, which provide the most antioxidants.
“In addition, cocoa is a concentrated source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, and arginine — an amino acid that helps blood vessels dilate,” Katz says. And then there are psychoactive compounds like theobromine, which may help explain chocolate’s unique allure as an aphrodisiac (the perfect Valentine’s Day treat), but that area remains under study, he points out.
So how do flavonoids work such magic? Deanna Minich, PhD, the vice president of scientific affairs at Clean Program, whose study areas are human nutrition and medical sciences with a focus on the application of science in nutrition and lifestyle, explains that those phytonutrients or polyphenols called flavonoids (aka antioxidants derived from plants) essentially help blood vessels expand and relax. “You might imagine that when your brain and heart have enough oxygen and blood flow, they work better,” she points out.