If there’s a health food most people can agree on — including nutrition experts — chocolate is it. “Chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, comes with a multitude of health benefits when consumed in moderation,” says Lauren Manaker, RDN, LD, a writer and personal trainer based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Technically, chocolate is a plant-based food, and derives many of those benefits from the presence of flavanols, compounds found in cocoa beans, according to a review published in May 2021 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, both of which have been associated with a lower risk of many chronic diseases and may lessen the cellular damage that comes with aging, and, the review notes, emerging evidence indicates that cocoa flavanols may be a particularly potent source of these compounds.
The impact of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular disease has been particularly closely studied, and early in 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that there is limited, but credible scientific evidence for products to make the claim that high flavanol cocoa powder may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The FDA does note, however, that this qualified health claim does not apply to “regular cocoa powder, foods containing regular cocoa powder, or other food products made from cacao beans, such as chocolate.”
Still, the research on dark chocolate is promising, says Laura M. Ali, RDN, LDN, a culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh. One past study found that dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure, possibly due to theobromine, a compound that is similar to caffeine but appears to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. “Theobromine helps widen and relax your blood vessels which increases blood flow and may help reduce blood pressure,” Ali says.
These effects may also improve blood flow to the brain, which could be why a systematic review and meta-analysis published in Phytotherapy Research in May 2023 concluded that eating cocoa daily may have cognitive benefits, including improved learning, memory, and attention. “Chocolate can also enhance brain function, with studies suggesting that it may improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases,” Manaker says. Not only that, she says, but chocolate has also been shown to be a mood enhancer.
In one randomized controlled trial, healthy adults who ate 85 percent cacao dark chocolate daily for three weeks reported improved mood, possibly because dark chocolate acts as a prebiotic. The study authors speculate that the effects of chocolate on the microbiome influence mood via the gut-brain axis, according to research published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in January 2022.
What Kind of Chocolate to Eat
Knowing chocolate has so many potential benefits may feel like a license to enjoy some regularly, but the kind of chocolate and the amount matters. “The main difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate surrounds their ingredients and cocoa content,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table. “Dark chocolate has a significantly higher cocoa content, ranging from 50 percent to 90 percent.”
The higher the cocoa percentage, the more health-promoting antioxidants and other compounds the chocolate contains — and the darker, more intense and less sweet it is, Taub-Dix explains. Dark chocolate has 2 to 3 times as many flavanols as milk varieties, according to Harvard Health. Milk chocolate also tends to have more added sugar and milk, which contains saturated fat.
Most nutritionists recommend aiming for bars with 60 percent cocoa or higher to reap the most health benefits. Taub-Dix does note that it is important to read labels carefully, as some dark chocolate may include milk solids, in which case it is labeled “dark chocolate with milk.”
One other caveat about dark chocolate: In 2022, Consumer Reports published results of an analysis that found many dark chocolate bars on the market contained both lead and cadmium, a heavy metal that poses potential health risks. “[Cadmium] is taken up by the cacao plant from the soil and accumulates in the beans, which are then processed into chocolate,” Manaker explains. “The cadmium levels in chocolate vary based on factors such as the type of soil in which the cacao plant was grown, farming practices, and the variety of the plant itself. Dark chocolate, due to its higher cacao content, tends to have higher levels of cadmium.” Usually, the amount of cadmium in chocolate bars is within safe limits, but, she says, it is another good reason to eat chocolate in moderation.
One good thing about dark chocolate is that, due to its intense flavor, a little goes a long way. “A small piece of dark chocolate after dinner or a few dark chocolate chips mixed in with nuts and dried fruit gives my afternoon a nice little boost and helps me focus,” says Ali. “An ounce is all you need. That amounts to one square of chocolate.”
That may not seem like a lot, but it could be just enough to help keep cravings for less healthy snacks at bay, says Taub-Dix. She recommends sucking on the chocolate instead of chewing it to make it last longer and to help you appreciate the texture, taste and flavor of the bar. Choosing a quality bar with a high cocoa percentage can help. Here are 10 nutritionists say they enjoy.