Media attention on dark chocolate research and potential health benefits has increased sales of dark chocolate, fueling a 93% growth in the market. If you are looking to justify some indulgences this Valentine’s Day scientists have uncovered health benefits in cocoa. But before you grab a chocolate bar or a slice of chocolate cake it is important to understand not all chocolate is healthy.
Chocolate comes from harvesting cocoa beans and combining them with ingredients such as sugar, milk, and butter to make the tasty treats we love.
Studies show cocoa contains powerful phytochemicals which can improve blood flow, increase flexibility of arteries, lower blood pressure, reduce clumping of platelets, and increase brain alertness. Some studies show people who ate dark chocolate regularly had a 50% reduction in heart disease risk.
One promising study gave middle-aged sedentary mice epicatechin, a compound in cocoa, twice daily. Half the mice exercised daily and the other half did not. After 15 days all mice performed an exercise test. Mice who never exercised but consumed epicatechin performed better than mice not fed the compound but who exercised daily. The top performers were mice who did both, consumed epicatechin and exercised.
The epicatechin appeared to increase capillaries as well as mitochondria which produce cellular energy, even in mice who never ran during the 15 day study. Mice are not people, but this study provides evidence of chocolate increasing athletic performance even in sedentary conditions. The human dosage equivalent to the mice consumption is 1/6th of an ounce or 1/2 a dark chocolate square.
Most chocolate is highly processed, meaning it has a lot of added ingredients such as sugar, fat, and preservatives which are not healthy and can lead to weight gain. Heavily processed dark chocolate is also lower in phytochemicals and does not provide the same health benefits as minimally processed dark chocolate or pure cocoa powder. When purchasing dark chocolate look for over 70% cocoa to receive some health benefits and select the least processed varieties. One of our favorite ways to enjoy the health benefits is mixing 3 tbs of unsweetened cocoa powder into oatmeal for breakfast.