Cocoa, the main constituent of chocolate products, contains flavanols which are associated with many health benefits from gut health, increasing blood flow, managing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, exercise performance, memory/cognition, and blood sugar control. These gut-friendly compounds are also found in foods such as grapes, apples, and tea.
Cocoa is considered a prebiotic, which is essentially food for the bacteria in the gut. Several studies have shown that consumption of cocoa increases the levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, while reducing the number of pathogenic ones, such as Clostridium perfringens. When the microbes break down the undigestible fiber in the cocoa, short-chain fatty acids such as butyric, propionic and acetic acids can form. These compounds have been shown to reduce inflammation, especially in the gut. This ability to harness the benefits seems to vary between individuals because each person has a unique bacterial flora.
When someone says that chocolate makes them feel good, it might be related to it’s relationship with the brain.
Cocoa flavanols exert neuroprotective properties and improve cognition through their ability to enhance MAPK, ERK, PI3 singling pathways leading to an increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) expression. This compound helps the brain to develop new connections, repair failing brain cells, and protect healthy brain cells.
These flavanols can also increase blood flow to the brain which can have benefits for cognitive performance such as enhanced mood and memory.
Research that shows promising benefits reports anywhere from daily doses of 19-54 grams of cocoa, 46-100 grams dark chocolate, or cocoa containing 16.6-1080 mg of cocoa polyphenols.
How to choose the best kind of chocolate
Just like anything in the food industry, not all chocolate is created equal. Most chocolate products on the market tend to contain high levels of sugars and fat, leaving little room for the ingredients that offers the benefits. The main things to look for to receive optimal benefit from a product include:
- No added sugars, soy lecithin, preservatives, or unhealthy oils
- 70% cocoa or greater
- Milk/butter if you have a sensitivity
Heavy metals are also a concern with chocolate due to the naturally occurring compounds found in the soil during cultivation. Cadmium is one of the most prevalent toxic metals found in several cocoa products, especially cocoa powders. Cadmium is a probable carcinogen and can be toxic to the kidneys, impact fetal development and can soften bones. It is interesting to note that organic products were more contaminated with cadmium than non-organic products. Based on consumer labs report, I have provided a list below of the chocolate products that were not approved because they exceeded the acceptable amount of heavy metals as well as those that were approved and within normal limits.
Worst (highest levels of cadmium)
- Trader Joe’s The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Bar * Highest amount of cadmium per serving!
- Pascha Organic Dark Chocolate
- Dove Dark Chocolate
- Alter Eco Deep Blackout
- Taza Chocolate Wicked Dark
- Equal Exchange Chocolate Organic Panama Extra Dark
- Theo Sea Salt 70%
- Scharfen Berger 99% Cocoa
- Lindt Excellence Supreme Dark 90% Cocoa
- Hershey’s Cocoa Powder
- Nativas Organic Cocoa Powder
- Trader Joes Cocoa Powder & Organic Cocoa Powder
Best (lowest levels of cadmium with highest levels of flavanols)
- Montezuma’s 100% Cocoa * Top pick. Highest amount of flavors and lowest for cadmium.
- Trader Joes Pound Plus 72% Cocoa
- Baker’s Unsweetened- 100% Cocoa
- Chocolove Extra Strong – 77% Cocoa
- Chocolove Strong Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa
- Endangered Species Chocolate Strong + Velvety 88% Cocoa
- Ghiradelli Intense Dark 86% Cocoa
- Lily’s Dark Chocolate 55% Cocoa (sweetened with stevia so not my preferred recommendation)
- Ghiradelli Chocolate Premium Baking Chips 60% Cocoa
- Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Baking Chips 63% Cocoa
- Dagoba Organic Cocoa Powder
- Ghiradelli Chocolate Premium Baking Cocoa
- Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa Powder
Who might not benefit from chocolate?
Heaving about all of the benefits of chocolate might make you feel like you should be eating if everyday. But, If you have underlying gut imbalances, chocolate might not agree with you. Chocolate contains tyramine and phenylethylamine, which are histamine triggers for those who have a histamine intolerance. The caffeine and probiotics in chocolate might also increase symptoms of heartburn, bloating, and diarrhea in sensitive individuals. Getting to the root cause of your digestive issues is key and may allow you to be able to enjoy chocolate in moderation again.
Salted Tahini Caramel Bars – Rewire Your Sweet Tooth Cookbook
If you enjoyed this post please leave a comment and feel free to ask any questions! Go check your cabinets and try out some of the amazing gut friendly recipes from my book, Rewire Your Sweet Tooth.