It’s unlikely your doctor will be prescribing chocolate anytime soon, but science is finding lots of dark chocolate health benefits to support eating it daily. And chocolate science may be our favorite science. Here’s why research says dark chocolate can be good for you.

By Sheena Chihak, RD

The health benefits of dark chocolate come from three primary sources in the cocoa bean: Flavonoids (types of polyphenols), methylxanthine compounds (scary names for caffeine and theobromine), and minerals (you know, like iron and zinc).

Flavonoids are where most of the current science focuses. It’s worth noting that while flavonoids comprise up to 18 percent of the dry weight of cocoa beans, by the time cocoa is processed into the delicious chocolate we eat, it can lose up to 90 percent of those flavonoids! Look for the highest percentage of cacao when buying chocolate to get the most flavanoids possible and reap these four benefits of dark chocolate.

1. For Your Heart

Those cocoa flavonoids work their heart-health magic by activating the nitric oxide (NO) system in your body. Production of NO helps to relax blood vessels (vasodialation, if you want the technical term) and improve blood flow. Improved blood flow means lower blood pressure!

2. For Your Brain

A newer area of chocolate research is the central nervous system, including your brain. Flavonoid-rich cocoa encourages nitric oxide production, which increases blood flow to the brain and heart. Increased blood flow to the brain (especially the gray matter) stimulates the development of new blood vessels and new nerve cell growth. Flavonoids and methylxanthines have also been shown to play roles in long-term memory formation, synaptic function, and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Many of these results are preliminary, so stay tuned for updated research. But we’re willing to risk a few bites of dark chocolate for a promise like this.

Related: Healthy Dark Chocolate Desserts

3. For Improved Insulin Sensitivity

The promise of cocoa flavonoids to improve insulin sensitivity has been an ongoing area of research, and a scientific review in 2017 found the promise to be real. Cocoa flavonoids and other polyphenols work to stimulate the release of insulin and to encourage the liver to produce glucose. Research is showing stronger impacts with sustained dark chocolate consumption over a long period versus single doses. A lot of research still needs to be done, but we can't help but get excited about the potential for help with diabetes management.

4. For a Happy Boost, Maybe

Possibly the most controversial dark chocolate research is around how it impacts our mood. A couple studies found eating chocolate can improve someone’s negative mood in the short-term, but then who isn’t cheered up at least a little by eating something delicious? So while it might make us smile in the short term, there’s nothing magical happening in our biology—we just like chocolate and things we like make us happy. Other studies support a psychoactive effect from the flavonoids and methylxanthine compounds in cognitive performance, anxiety, and mental fatigue. Whether the science proves this in the long run or not, we’re content with even a little happiness earned from eating pleasurable food.

Don’t go throwing out any heart, diabetes, or other medications in favor of chocolate. As we mentioned, the processing of chocolate can limit the amount of flavonoids left in what we eat so it’s hard to know just how much of them you’re getting. Plus, these same healthful compounds can be found in fresh produce, tea, and other sources that offer more nutritional perks.

Other words of caution: Chocolate is generally high in sugar, fat, and calories, which can be detrimental to your weight. Chocolate is also considered a negative factor for other conditions such as acne, heartburn, and reflux. If you’re going to choose chocolate for health reasons, stick to dark chocolate and get the highest percentage cacao that you enjoy to get the best flavonoid boost.

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