Various research studies have found that moderate chocolate consumption may have heart benefits. But dark chocolate often sticks out as the best choice.
Dark chocolate generally contains less sugar than other types of chocolate. More importantly, it has higher concentrations of cocoa powder. Cocoa is made from cacao beans, which have high levels of antioxidants and flavanols, two substances that have been linked to heart health.
However, before you start binging on dark chocolate, take a moment to understand what the science says — and doesn’t say — about dark chocolate and your heart.
Dark chocolate may be good for your heart
Dark chocolate’s heart benefits stem from the large amount of cocoa it contains. Like many other plant-based substances, cocoa has cardiovascular health benefits.
Flavonoids, a type of molecule found in cocoa — as well as apples, citrus, tea, and other plant foods — has been found to lower blood pressure in those with hypertension. Flavanols, a subgroup of flavonoids that are especially rich in dark chocolate, may also have positive impacts on heart health.
Flavanols have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants — found in cocoa, berries, spinach and other plant foods — are naturally-occurring molecules that can repair damaged cells and may be able to reduce your risk of heart disease.
For example, research has found that eating foods high in antioxidants and flavonoids can be beneficial to your heart. Specifically, a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that dark chocolate, cocoa, and almonds may be able to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease.
The study looked at overweight and obese individuals ages 30 to 70, who were divided into three groups: one which ate a typical American diet, another that incorporated almonds, and a third that incorporated almonds and dark chocolate. The group that consumed dark chocolate and almonds had the greatest reduction in LDL cholesterol, which is considered a major risk factor for heart disease.
Moderating dark chocolate is still necessary
Before you bite into a chunk of dark chocolate, it’s important to remember that moderation is key, says Lauren Gilstrap, MD, a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health Center.
“I don’t think anybody is going to eat enough chocolate to bring their cholesterol and blood pressure down without doing a lot of other damage to blood sugar, weight, and things like that,” Gilstrap says.
Studies emphasize this, as well: dark chocolate should only be consumed without “exceeding energy needs,” or indulging in too many calories, according to the study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. There’s no recommended dose of dark chocolate, but the study participants ate 43 grams of dark chocolate per day.
Additionally, the benefits of dark chocolate are strongest when there is a higher concentration of cocoa: around 80% or more. That type of dark chocolate can taste bitter and isn’t particularly popular with consumers, Gilstrap says, though it is definitely healthier than white or milk chocolate.
If you’re craving a treat, dark chocolate is a healthier choice than other junk foods high in sugar and fats. But if you’re looking for the heart benefits associated with flavonoids and antioxidants, you’ll also want to eat more almonds, berries, apples, citrus, spinach, and drink black or green tea.
To learn more about the best diets for heart health, read our article, “What foods lower blood pressure and make up the DASH diet.“