Health by Chocolate: The polyphenomenal health benefits of chocolate

You’ve heard of death by chocolate, but doesn’t health by chocolate sound a lot better? Lucky for chocolate lovers, a growing amount of research is highlighting the much-loved food’s phenomenal health benefits—the key is to choose your chocolate wisely.

From the beginning of the human relationship with cacao it was recognized as something special. Believing it to give him wisdom and power, the Aztec king Montezuma is rumored to have drank up to 50 goblets a day of xocaotl, (from Nahuatl words meaning “bitter water”) an unsweetened drink brewed from cacao beans. When cacao was brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, it was widely used as a medicine, prescribed for coughs, digestive upset, infertility, and even as an anti-depressant.[1] And in the 18th century, botanist Carl Linnaeus gave it its Latin name Theobroma cacao, or “cocoa, food of the gods.” Even after cacao was “adulterated” with milk and sugar, becoming chocolate as we know it today, the beans were still valued for their medicinal and sometimes aphrodisiac properties.[2] Early chocolate lovers were right—chocolate can be good for the body and mind in many ways.

The science behind the chocolate

Over the past decade, there has been a surge in research exploring the health benefits of chocolate, with much of the research focused on cardiovascular health. With this research has come an investigation of the specific compounds that are responsible for these benefits—namely a class of powerful antioxidants called polyphenols. Polyphenols are phytochemicals that give plants their distinctive colors and provide protection from UV damage, pests, and infections. They are found in high concentrations in dark fruits like blueberries, and in tea, red wine, and cocoa. In a list published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, dark chocolate ranked above tea (both green and black), wine, and pomegranate juice in a list of the top 25 richest food sources of polyphenols.[3] [4]

When we eat foods that contain polyphenols they act as antioxidants, protecting proteins, fats, and DNA from oxidative damage. Oxidative stress plays a role in aging and is believed to be involved in the development of a number of degenerative diseases, including cardiovascular disease. The polyphenols in chocolate seem to have a special affinity for the cardiovascular system, acting in a number of ways to support cardiovascular health. Several studies have shown that chocolate consumption increases HDL cholesterol levels (the type commonly considered “good”).[5],[6],[7] Perhaps more importantly, chocolate consumption appears to protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation[8],[9]—oxidation of LDL cholesterol is believed to contribute to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. In addition to protecting cholesterol from damage, polyphenols from cocoa also promote healthy endothelial function. The endothelium is a thin layer of cells that lines the interior of all blood vessels—a healthy endothelium is crucial to vascular health. Polyphenols protect the endothelial lining from free radical damage and help to modulate inflammation.[10],[11]

Cocoa has also been found to modestly improve blood pressure,[12],[13] which may be due to the fact that epicatechin, a type of polyphenol found in chocolate, improves the body’s production of nitric oxide.[14] Nitric oxide promotes the blood vessels’ ability to relax, helps prevent the clumping of platelets, and keeps blood flowing smoothly. Nitric oxide’s benefits aren’t confined to the cardiovascular system either; it influences the health of many other parts of the body including the immune system and the brain.[15]

Solid research has elucidated cocoa’s role in cardiovascular health, but the health benefits don’t stop there…

  • In the same way that polyphenols help to modulate inflammation in the cardiovascular system, they also modulate it throughout the body. In one study moderate dark chocolate consumption was associated with lower C-reactive protein levels, a marker of whole body inflammation.[16]
  • Long maligned in old-wives’ tales as an acne-producing food, there is no reason to believe that chocolate is bad for the skin. On the contrary, high polyphenol consumption from chocolate is associated with improved skin tone and texture and may even help to protect the skin from UV sun damage.[17],[18] More than likely, it is the sugar and milk added to many chocolates that are the culprits behind this old tale, since both elicit a strong insulin response and insulin is a driver of acne.[19]
  • A high intake of polyphenols from chocolate even appears to enhance blood flow to the brain, a benefit that has created quite a buzz, with some speculating it may improve memory and even protect neurons from damage.[20],[21]

While the polyphenols do tend to steal the spotlight, they’re not all chocolate has going for it. Cocoa is high in other nutrients, such as the minerals magnesium and copper, as well. Magnesium supports cardiovascular function in a number of ways, including maintaining healthy heart rhythm and blood pressure. It is also critical for energy production and maintaining strong bones. A 100-gram serving of dark chocolate contains over one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for an adult woman, slightly less for an adult man. In the United States, dark chocolate is also the largest contributor of copper to the diet.[22] Copper is involved in the enzyme superoxide dismutase, which is one of the body’s most potent internally produced antioxidants. Although chocolate’s high polyphenol content tends to steal the spotlight, some speculate that the health benefits attributed to chocolate are not from the polyphenols alone, but from the synergistic action of all these health-promoting compounds.

Choose your chocolate wisely

Chocolate can be counted as a healthy food—but not just any chocolate. The bad news is that many chocolate products on the market are loaded with sugar and milk, or even worse, with artificial flavors, highly processed vegetable oils, and maybe even little to no actual cacao. The health benefits from chocolate come from the cacao bean itself and all of those benefits are diminished when the percentage of cacao decreases. In some studies sugar-free cocoa yields greater benefits than sugared-cocoa consumption.[23] To really reap the benefits, choose dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa/cacao (70% or higher) listed on the label. Interestingly, in a study involving 49 healthy women who consumed 41 grams of dark chocolate a day for six weeks, none of the subjects gained weight.[24] If you’re not keen on eating a few squares of dark chocolate daily, try it other ways—it really is a versatile food. Mix a little unsweetened cocoa powder or raw cacao powder into a smoothie or protein shake, or try adding cacao nibs to trail mixes, oatmeal, nut butters, or yogurt. You can even venture into the savory chocolate realm and try a traditional Mexican mole negro or add unsweetened cocoa powder to red chili. Experiment with some of the recipes that follow.

So chocolate lovers, rejoice! A small amount of dark chocolate or cocoa daily really does have a place in a healthy diet. While you enjoy your chocolate fix, you are also promoting good health.

Why Fair Trade?

As delicious and nutritious as it may be, like many other commodities grown in developing countries to be sold in developed ones, chocolate has a dark side. The truth is, human and environmental abuses abound in chocolate production, and it’s enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Cacao trees require precise growing conditions and can only be grown near the equator. Although they grow best as part of a rainforest, land is often cleared to grow cacao exclusively. While farmers can get higher yields with this method, the cacao trees are more susceptible to disease and pests in this scenario and require the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. The soil is also depleted more rapidly without the benefits of a more complex rainforest ecosystem.

About 70 percent of the world’s supply of cacao beans comes from West Africa, mostly from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Many of the biggest chocolate producers source their chocolate from this region. While they may grow tasty cacao beans, reports of child and slave labor have plagued this region’s cacao plantations and farms.[25],[26] In 2001 when these reports first surfaced,  legislation requiring a labeling system for chocolate was introduced, but due to industry push-back all that came of it was a voluntary labeling protocol for chocolate companies. This protocol appears to have done little good and independent evaluators believe the situation to be no better today than it was back in 2001. Even though Central and South America and the Caribbean, where most of the remaining cacao is grown, hasn’t had many of the same troubles, farmers here still face low wages, poor working conditions, and scrupulous middlemen who strip farmers of their profits.[27]

It’s hard to swallow the fact that some of the world’s poorest inhabitants and most precious natural resources are exploited everyday to satisfy our desire for chocolate. So what’s a chocolate lover to do?  Lucky for us we can have our chocolate and eat it too. Probably the best place to start is to look for the Fair Trade Certification, which sets social and environmental standards. It protects prices paid to farmers, but also prohibits child labor, forced labor, and discrimination, and protects the rights and wages of workers. A separate certification, the RainForest Alliance, is more specifically focused on the environmental aspects of cacao growing, but also requires some social and economic protections. If you don’t see either of these certifications on your favorite chocolate let the company know that you won’t buy their products until changes are made. As a bonus, companies that source cacao that has been grown and harvested in a way that protects natural resources and human dignity also tend to produce higher quality products. You may pay a little more, but if you think of chocolate as a luxury item and enjoy it as such, it doesn’t seem such a high price to pay.


[1] Jalil AM, Ismail A. Polyphenols in Cocoa and Cocoa Products: Is There a Link between Antioxidant Properties and Health? Molecules. 2008;13, 2190-2219.

[2] Bensen A. A Brief History of Chocolate., March 1, 2008.



[5] Di Renzo L, Rizzo M, Sarlo F, et al. Effects of dark chocolate in a population of normal weight obese women: a pilot study. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013;17(16):2257-2266.

[6] Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, et al. Dark chocolate consumption increases HDL cholesterol

concentration and chocolate fatty acids may inhibit lipid peroxidation in healthy humans. Free Radic Biol

Med. 2004;37(9):1351-1359.

[7] Mellor DD, Sathyapalan T, Kilpatrick ES, Beckett S, Atkin SL. High-cocoa polyphenol-rich chocolate

improves HDL cholesterol in type 2 diabetes patients. Diabet Med. 2010;27(11):1318-1321.

[8] Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, et al. Dark chocolate consumption increases HDL cholesterol

concentration and chocolate fatty acids may inhibit lipid peroxidation in healthy humans. Free Radic Biol

Med. 2004;37(9):1351-1359.

[9] Martin FPJ, Collino S, Rezzi S, Kochhar S. The effect of chocolate on human and gut microbial metabolic interactions: Emphasis on human health and nutritional status. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. 2013;7:189-200.

[10] Di Giuseppe R, Di Castelnuovo A, Centritto F, Zito F, De Curtis A, Costanzo S, et al. Regular consumption of Dark Chocolate is associated with low serum concentrations of C-Reactive Protein in a Healthy Italian Population. J Nutr. 2008;138(10):1939-1945.

[11] Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2011;15(10): 2779-2811.

[12] Grassi D, Desideri G, Necozione S, Lippi C, Casale R, Properzi G, et al. Blood pressure is reduced and insulin sensitivity increased in glucose-intolerant, hypertensive subjects after 15 days of consuming high-polyphenol dark chocolate. J Nutr. 2008;138(9):1671-1676.

[13] Davison K, Coates AM, Buckley JD, Howe PR. Effect of cocoa flavanols and exercise on cardiometabolic risk factors in overweight and obese subjects. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008;32(8):1289-96.

[14] Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2011;15(10): 2779-2811

[15] Ignarro LJ. No More Heart Disease: How Nitric Oxide Can Prevent—Even Reverse—Heart Disease and Strokes. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press; 2005.

[16] Di Giuseppe R, Di Castelnuovo A, Centritto F, Zito F, De Curtis A, Costanzo S, et al. Regular consumption of Dark Chocolate is associated with low serum concentrations of C-Reactive Protein in a Healthy Italian Population. J Nutr. 2008;138(10):1939-1945.

[17] James K. The Truth About Beauty Transform your looks and your life from the inside out. New York, NY: Atria Books; 2007.

[18] Williams S, Tamburic S, Lally C. Eating chocolate can significantly protect the skin from UV light. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2009;8(3):169-73.

[19] Cordain L, Eades MR. Hyperinsulinemic disease of civilization: more than just Syndrome X. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2003;136(1):95-112.

[20] Francis ST, Head K, Morris PG, Macdonald IA. The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on the fMRI response to a cognitive task in healthy young people. J Cardiovascular Pharmacol. 2006;47 Supp:S215-20

[21] Soround FA, Hurwitz S, Salat DH, Geve DN, Fisher NDL. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013;81(10):904-9.

[22] Jalil AM, Ismail A. Polyphenols in cocoa and cocoa products: is thre a link between antioxidant properties and health? Molecules. 2008:13(9):2190-2219.

[23] Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 2011;15(10): 2779-2811.


[25] McKenzie D and Swails B. Child slavery and chocolate: All too easy to find. The CNN Freedom Project. January 19, 2012. Available at:

[26] Parenti C. Chocolate’s bittersweet economy. Fortune Magazine. Feb 15, 2008. Available at:

[27] Why Organic and Fair Trade Chocolate is a Sweeter Deal. Accessed October 17, 2013.