The symbolic connection between chocolate and love was originally established by the Mayans of Mexico where, in addition to serving chocolate as a celebratory beverage at betrothal and marriage ceremonies (much like expensive French champagne), the bride and bridegroom exchanged cacao beans during their wedding vows to signify their bond.
During an initially peaceful foray to Mexico in 1519, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes observed that cacao beans were used as a form of currency among the Aztecs. He also couldn’t help but notice the large quantities of chocolate beverage (reportedly up to 50 golden goblets full!) the Emperor Montezuma consumed, especially before visiting his harem, perpetuating the belief that chocolate was a powerful aphrodisiac.
After conquering the hospitable, Cortes established cacao plantations in Spain’s new colony. When Cortes returned to Spain almost a decade later, he introduced chocolate to Europe, where it was consumed mostly as a beverage among the nobility for the next several centuries. In the early 1800s, Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten invented the powdered chocolate we know today as “cocoa.” This enabled large-scale production of chocolate in both powdered and solid form. The first chocolate bar, a paste of cocoa powder and sugar pressed into a bar shape, was created in 1847. The tradition of giving chocolates on Valentine’s Day started in 1861 as a marketing strategy when Richard Cadbury (son of the founder of Cadbury chocolates) began packaging “eating chocolates” in heart-shaped boxes. By 1900, chocolate shops regularly featured decorative boxes of chocolate for gentlemen to present to their wives and sweethearts. From Russell Stover to Godiva, the rest is Valentine Day’s chocolate history.
It’s important to note, however, that during a marriage ceremony in Aztec culture, “chocolate” was consumed as a hot or cold beverage, consisting of roasted cacao bean (bittersweet in its natural form), toasted corn and water. Only after cacao was introduced to Europe was sugar added to cacao; this combination evolved into the confection that we now know as “chocolate”.
What is “Dark Chocolate”?
When it comes to chocolate and your health, it’s important to understand: not all chocolate is created equal.
Milk chocolate or dark chocolate containing milk does not qualify as a healthy chocolate.
Neither do commercial “dark” chocolate bars, like Dove or Hershey’s.
Chocolate companies, like Russell Stover or Godiva, offer boxes of “assorted dark chocolates”; however, these dark chocolate pieces are often very high in sugar (e.g., just 2 pieces can contain 17 grams, or 4-plus teaspoons, of sugar), as well as artificial colors, artificial flavors and preservatives.
Though experts often say that dark chocolate with 70% cocoa is “healthy”, most 70% cocoa chocolate bars contain a substantial amount of sugar per serving.
Dark chocolate in its beneficial real food form should be “extra dark”, containing at least 80% to 85% cocoa or more. Ideally, when you indulge, dark chocolate should be organic, gluten-free, dairy free, soy-free and contain minimal sugar (<5 grams per serving). My favorite dark chocolate bar contains 95% cocoa and just 2 grams of sugar per serving (1 serving for this bar = half bar).
Dark Chocolate and Heart Health
Okay, now that we’ve established what real dark chocolate is…let’s get right to the heart of the matter. YES, dark chocolate can be good for heart health!
The flavanols (naturally occurring plant compounds) in dark chocolate and cocoa can:
»» Reduce blood pressure; in one study, up to 2-3 points.1
»» Lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol; and, as a result, reduce your risk for heart disease.2
»» Improve blood flow to the heart and brain.3, 4, 5
»» Reduce the stress hormone cortisol.6
*One study found that when participants, classified as “anxious” based on psychological questionnaires, ate 40 grams (apx. 3 squares) of dark chocolate every day for 2 weeks, they had a lower urinary output of cortisol.
»» Help improve brain function in healthy young people, as well as elderly people with mild cognitive impairment.
*Cognitive improvement or focus is often attributed to the cocoa flavanols and stimulant compounds (caffeine and theobromine) in dark chocolate.7, 8
»» Dark chocolate may be a natural antidepressant.
A 2019 cross-sectional study of over 13,000 adults found that people who ate a small amount of dark chocolate in the past 24 hours were 70% less likely to report feeling depressed.9
The mood-altering effect of dark chocolate is attributed to magnesium, an anti-stress mineral, as well as to its flavanol, fatty acid, phenylethylamine, caffeine and theobromine content.
The sum of these health benefits, from a daily modest consumption of dark chocolate–ability to reduce stress and improve blood flow, to its positive effect on cholesterol and blood pressure—add up to improved cardiovascular health.
Dark Chocolate Nutrition
Dark chocolate is a source of healthy fat. The fat is from the cocoa butter and consists of modest amounts of monounsaturated fat (also found in olive oil) and saturated fat (stearic and palmitic acids). This is why a little dark chocolate can go a long way…healthy fat is satiating and satisfying.
Dark chocolate is a formidable superfood. It is an excellent source of antioxidants, including polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. One study shows that dark chocolate and cocoa powder surpasses blueberries and acai berries in terms of antioxidant capacity.10
Dark chocolate with high cocoa content is a good source of the anti-stress mineral magnesium, as well as other minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, selenium and calcium. It is also a good source of fiber.
Dark Chocolate: The Not So Great
Despite its superfood status, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. Eating too much chocolate can cause:
»» Weight gain
*Dark chocolate is high in calories and fat
»» Problems falling or staying asleep
*Dark chocolate contains 12 mg of caffeine per ounce which can interfere with sleep if you are sensitive
»» Digestive distress (bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea)
»» Acid reflux (the cocoa powder in dark chocolate is acidic; dark chocolate also contains caffeine and theobromine).
»» Food sensitivity
*If you have a known or suspected food allergy or food sensitivity to chocolate, do NOT start eating it now! Eating chocolate, especially when you are sensitive to it, creates inflammation in the body, which can trigger or worsen any of the symptoms mentioned above.
How Much Dark Chocolate Can I / Should I eat?
This can depend on how sensitive you are to chocolate. A little goes a long way. If you buy a high quality, organic bar of dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, 1 to 3 squares should feel satisfying. Read the label so that you know how many squares equal 1 serving size. If you are sensitive to caffeine, keep in mind that 1 ounce of dark chocolate contains about 12 mg of caffeine.
When you do indulge, eat it slowly, savor and ENJOY!
RECIPES: Irresistible Dark Chocolate Treats
No-Guilt Flourless Chocolate Cake
Buckwheat Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies
Sweet Potato Brownies
Gluten-Free Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting
Tiger Nut Flour Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Ganache
1 Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012 Aug 15;(8):CD008893
2 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2011 Aug; 65(8):879-86.
3 Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2017 Jan; 19:1-13
4 Journal of Nutrition. 2008 Sept; 38(9):1671-6.
5,7 Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. 2006;47 Suppl 2:S215-20.
6 Journal of Proteome Research. 2009 Dec; 8(12): 5568-79
8 Hypertension. 2012 Sep;60(3):794-801
9 Depression & Anxiety. July 29, 2019
10 BMC Chemistry. Feb. 7, 2011