The case for (small amounts of dark) chocolate being healthy

September 28, 2011


           It can be tough to resist the good sweet taste of chocolate. Its rich, smooth, and creamy experience perfectly suits our taste. However, contrary to what many people believe, chocolate may actually be good for you – in moderation.

 Typical Ingredients in Chocolate

  Chocolate is a raw or processed food made from the seed of the Theobroma cacao tree. The seeds of the cocoa tree are well known as cocoa or cacao beans. They are the dried and fully fermented fatty seeds that are vital component in chocolates. The production of cocoa and chocolate begins initially by cleaning the beans, roasting them, cracking, winnowing, dutching and grinding them until chocolate liquor is formed.

At this point, the production process changes depending on the manufacturers’ production style. Chocolate producers are using cocoa beans for a number of different stages in  production. Some do it first by mixing the liquor, then refining, conching, and molding them in a standardized shape before being stored and shipped off to the market. Some harden the liquor by molding them into (bitter) baking chocolate while some reduce the cocoa butter content and pulverize it in order to create cocoa powder.


There are various types of chocolate depending on the production style and taste. Some of these include white chocolate, dark chocolate, pure unsweetened chocolate, and the most consumed form, sweet or milk chocolate. Aside from cocoa beans, other typical ingredients of chocolate are cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk. Below is the detailed discussion of each ingredient.

Cocoa Liquor

Despite its name, cocoa liquor doesn’t contain alcohol. It is basically concentrated raw chocolate.  It is the most important ingredient in making chocolates. The general rule is the higher the liquor content, the better quality the chocolate is. It is created once the beans have dried, the shells are removed and the central part is ground. Because of the heat involved in the process, it melts and becomes chocolate liquor. Among the varieties of chocolate, dark chocolate has the highest amount of chocolate liquor.

Cocoa Butter

  Cocoa butter is also called as theobroma oil or theobroma cacao. It is a pale-yellow,  edible vegetable fat extracted from the cocoa bean. Interestingly, it is not only used to make chocolate, biscuits, and baked goods, but also used for some pharmaceuticals, ointments, and toiletries. While cocoa liquor is for dark chocolate, cocoa butter is used in white and milk chocolate.


This ingredient is very essential in turning the chocolate into a sweet treat. Without this, the chocolate has a very bitter taste much like the taste of coffee. Of course, there are sugar free chocolates, either unsweetened or sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners.


           Milk is the main ingredient in milk chocolate. This type of chocolate has either milk or milk power in it – giving the chocolate its creamy taste and paler flavor. Milk can likewise be used for dark chocolates and sweetened chocolates. The taste of the milk perfectly suits the slightly bitter taste of cocoa powder.

Nutritive Value of Cocoa

  Cocoa is grown mainly in West Africa, Central and South America and Asia. It is a reddish-brown powder made from the seeds of the cacao tree. It comes from fermented, roasted, and ground cocoa beans. The table below shows the top cocoa beans producers for the year 2009.

UN Food & Agriculture Organisation

Top Cocoa Beans Producers
in 2009
(million metric tons)
 Côte d’Ivoire 1.222
 Indonesia 0.800
 Ghana 0.662
 Nigeria 0.370
 Cameroon 0.226
 Brazil 0.218
 Ecuador 0.121
 Togo 0.105
 Papua New Guinea 0.051
 Dominican Republic 0.051
World Total 4.082

           Various studies link cocoa and chocolate with health benefits. Cocoa contains a large amount of antioxidants (flavinoids) which protect the cells in your body against the effects of free radicals. Free radicals damage body cells and play an important role in heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Aside from containing antioxidants, cocoa is believed to keep high blood pressure down and reduce the blood’s ability to clot. This could reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks. It could likewise improve blood circulation. Dark chocolate, which has the most concentrated cocoa and the least sugar and milk, has the most health benefits among all types of chocolates. Below shows the detailed nutritional facts of cocoa:


Ingredient Cocoa – low fat
(European type)
Cocoa – high fat
(Breakfast cocoa)
Unsweetened chocolate Bittersweet chocolate Semisweet chocolate and baking chocolate
Fat 10-15% 20-25% 45-55% 33-45% 20-35%
Carbohydrates 45-60% 45-60% 30-35% 20-50% 50-70%
Sugars 0-2% 0-2% 0-2% 13-45% 45-65%
Dietary fibers 20-35% 30-35% 15-20% 5-8% 3-8%
Protein 17-22% 15-20% 10-15% 5-10% 3-8%
Calories per oz ca 60 ca 90 140-150 150-160 130-160
Calories per 100 g ca 200 ca 300 470-500 500-550 450-550


Generally, a regular cocoa drink is  21 percent protein, 29 percent fat and about 40 percent carbohydrates. Specifically, cocoa beans contain vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, E and pantothenic acid. It also has essential minerals such as magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese.

According to Eric L. Ding, PhD of Harvard Medical School, polyphenolic flavonoids found in cocoa have the potential to prevent heart disease. In fact, in their analysis of 21 studies with 2,575 participants illustrates that cocoa consumption is linked with the decreased blood pressure, improved blood vessel health, and improvement of cholesterol levels. This study was just presented at the American Heart Association’s 2011 Scientific Sessions in Atlanta, Georgia. In another scientific study made by Harvard medical students of participants, ages 59 to 83 years old, the students found that those who regularly consumed cocoa had an 8 percent increase in brain blood flow after one week, and it increased to 10 percent after two weeks.

Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has spent years of studying the benefits of cocoa on people in Kuna, Panama, found  that the risk of 4 out of 5 most common killer diseases such as stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes was decreased to less than 10 percent in the Kuna. These people were asked to drink up to 40 cups of cocoa a week. He added that natural cocoa has high levels of epicatechin. Daniel Frabricant, Vice President of Scientific Affairs at the Natural Products Association, was amazed of the link between high epicatechin consumption and a decreased risk of killer diseases. Due to epicatechin’s being a strong anti-oxidant, it might be considered as a vitamin in the future.

Other Chemicals Found in Chocolate

     Apart from the vitamins, minerals and other health benefits of cocoa stated above, there are other chemicals included in chocolates. Chocolates have theobromine which has a mild diuretic effect. Based on the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it noted that theobromine was used before as a treatment for other circulatory problems including arteriosclerosis, certain vascular diseases, angina pectoris, and hypertension. In  modern science, theobromine is used as a vasodilator (a blood vessel widener), a diuretic, and heart stimulant. Furthermore, some other possible uses of theobromine in the future include cancer prevention.

Another chemical included in chocolate is phenylethylamine that is a slight anti-depressant. Michael Liebowitz, author of the popular book, “The Chemistry of Love”, remarked to reporters that chocolate is loaded with phenylethylamine. This became the focus for an article in “The New York Times”, which was then taken up by various wire services and then by magazine freelancers. Phenylethylamine helps regulate mood, stress and focus. Interestingly, it is well-known as a “love drug”. It is a kind of chemical that mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love. Therefore, when levels of phenylethylamine are high in the body, it relieves depression making it a good mood elevator.

One more chemical contained in chocolates is serotonine. Many researchers believe that an imbalance in serotonine levels may affect a person’s mood in a way that could lead to depression. It has the same effect of phenylethylamine. Serotonine is known as the happy hormone. An increase in the level of serotonine in the brain can influence one’s mood and sense of well-being.

Negative Health Effects of Chocolate

  Looking at the health benefits illustrated above, maybe one will ask, “Are there any negative health effects of chocolate?” The answer is sometimes, especially when consumed in excess. Chocolate contains some chemicals that can aggravate or affect certain medical conditions. Some chocolates, during the processing period, can have a high concentration of lead which could potentially harm our body by causing mild poisoning. A lot of chocolate manufacturers already faced various lawsuits regarding this matter. Another possible threat to one’s health is contamination during the manufacturing process.

To some people, chocolate has been connected with kidney stones, headaches, acne, allergies, dental cavities and premenstrual syndrome. But most scientific evidences associating these problems to chocolate are weak. There are reports that cocoa can be addictive. It is also sometimes toxic to the liver, and and can even agitate the kidneys and the adrenal glands. For some, it can cause insomnia, nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night, shakes, and extreme energy shifts – much like the effects of caffeine on some people. In addition, because of the sugar and relatively high amount of calories, chocolate can be fattening and should be eaten in moderation.

Dark Chocolate

           Dark chocolate is rich in cell-protecting antioxidant – quite a bit more, in fact than what is found in strawberries. It contains a lot more cocoa than tother types of chocolate. Recent studies have proven that it is good for the heart. There are two main health benefits of dark chocolate: lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol (Taubert et al, 2003).

Aside from it being antioxidant, a group of German researchers found out that the flavonoids in dark chocolate absorb UV light. This helps protect and increase blood flow to the skin, and improve skin’s hydration and complexion. However, among all its health benefits, dark chocolate does have a lot of calories. Therefore, experts recommend sticking to not more than three ounces of the sweet stuff per day.

  Mary Engler, PhD of the University of California, advised that eating a small, 1.6 ounce bar of dark chocolate daily is good for one’s health. Studies have shown that dark chocolate has ingredients that lower blood pressure and even fight diseases, unlike white chocolate and milk chocolate. A small bar everyday can help your heart and cardiovascular system running well. Lastly, John Robbins, author of the book entitled, “The Food Revolution”, states that eating dark chocolate is not just okay, but it is actually very good for you if taken not in excess of the recommended quantity per day.




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