Beech’s are firm advocates that cocoa has many wonderous benefits, and we are not alone in our beliefs. We only use the finest natural ingredients to make sure these beneficial properties are maintained. The problem in answering this particular question, however, is that there are so many different types of dark chocolate available, each using their own special recipes and unique ingredients, that providing a single straight answer is practically implausible.
In addition, there are also many variables that affect our health, both positively and negatively. With no two studies using the same subjects, at the same time, it is difficult to pinpoint one study that clearly defines the potential health effects of dark chocolate. However, despite these challenges, a wealth of research has been carried out and the general feeling is that consuming moderate quantities of dark chocolate on a regular basis can be beneficial to our health and general wellbeing.
But the question is how? Firstly we need to look at all of the individual elements that are present in dark chocolate and isolate the ones that are known to provide specific health benefits. These are broken down into the following main beneficial compounds such as flavanols, beneficial nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
What are Flavanols?
Cocoa is renowned source of compounds called flavanols – types of polyphenol, that are naturally produced by plants and found in foods such as fruit, vegetables, tea, coffee, wine, grains and chocolate. You will notice one common aspect of all of these foods – they have stimulant qualities, can make you feel instantly more alert and are commonly acknowledged to help improve blood flow. A great deal of research has been carried out to try and establish the potential health benefits of cocoa flavanols, covering a variety of aspects including effects on heart health, immunity, dental health, skin, gut bacteria and cancer.
There have been some very promising findings suggesting that cocoa flavanols can benefit certain aspects of heart health (namely blood pressure and cholesterol levels), however, it is difficult to make a sweeping statement about dark chocolate in general, as the amount of flavanols present in cocoa can vary due to the type of cocoa bean used.
One leading research paper that analysed a variety of bars of chocolate commercially available in the UK found that dark chocolate contained considerably more cocoa flavanols than milk chocolate. With plenty of evidence pointing toward the positive effects of flavanols on heart health, it is assumed that the greater the flavanol level, the better the product is for you. As Dark Chocolate is known to contain a high amount of flavanols, the general assumption is that Dark Chocolate does have several properties that benefit certain aspects of our health.
Due to the lack of consistency in research and subsequent reporting, it is incredibly difficult to find a legally approved position regarding the benefits of flavanols commonly found in dark chocolate. However, in 2012, a health claim with the wording ‘Cocoa flavanols help maintain endothelium-dependent vasodilation, which contributes to normal blood flow’ was approved for use in the EU. ‘Maintaining endothelium-dependent vasodilation’ refers to increasing the elasticity of blood vessels which, in turn, improves circulation in the body and may be associated with a more healthy heart. As ever, there are legal stipulations surrounding the use of this term; the EU directive details that in order to use the claim, a product must provide 200 mg of cocoa flavanols. 200mg can be delivered by 2.5 g of ‘high flavanol’ cocoa powder, or 10 g of ‘high flavanol’ dark chocolate.
Vitamins & Minerals in Dark Chocolate
Putting flavanols aside for one moment, dark chocolate contains other impressive compounds as it is naturally high in iron, magnesium, copper and manganese.
Why are these important? Well, if we look to the NHS’ own nutritional guidance, we can see that Iron is crucial for making the red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body and copper triggers the release of iron as the body forms haemoglobin, the substance that carries the oxygen around the body. Magnesium ensures that our parathyroid glands are able to function normally, producing hormones that are important in bone health and finally, Manganese helps the body to make certain enzymes, including those the body uses to break down food.
All of these are essential for maintaining a healthy heart and, because they are found in dark chocolate in abundance, its potential health benefits are further compounded.
Nutrients Contained in Dark Chocolate
In addition to all of the super ingredients detailed above, dark chocolate does have one more trick up it’s sleeve – a high concentration of something called phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants which help them stay healthy and free from disease. For example, some phytonutrients protect plants from insect attacks, while others protect the plant against radiation from UV rays.
By maintaining a regular intake of Phytonutrient-rich foods such as colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, tea, whole grains and many spices, these superb natural chemicals can also provide significant health benefits to humans too. Although phytonutrients do affect human health, they are not considered essential for life, such as carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Among the many benefits of phytonutrients are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities and the volume of Phytonutrients in cocoa are actually found to be greater than those in blueberries and pomegranates. So, when you collate all of these positive aspects, it is easy to understand why cocoa is now generally regarded to be a 'super food'.
As you can see, it is practically impossible to make any specific claims as to the direct health benefits of dark chocolate without accidentally swaying into a legal minefield, as the beneficial elements contained within it are subject to as much variation as the people on which the studies are carried out.
However, what we can say for certain is that research suggests that diets containing the nutritional elements naturally found in dark chocolate do make a valuable contribution toward heart health and general wellbeing.