Chocolate: Adding a healthy twist

08 Feb 2024

Chocolate is a beloved treat enjoyed in various ways – on its own, stirred into a warm drink and paired with dessert. Almost everyone loves it! Recent studies have also shown its potential health benefits for the heart, brain, and gut.

In a Nutshell

Plant Tales

The fruit behind chocolate: It’s easy to forget that chocolate comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. The yellow fruits are harvested from the trees and opened to remove the cocoa beans inside. The beans are fermented, dried, roasted, husked, and ground to form a pasty fluid chocolate liquor, which is the basis of all chocolate products.

First, a bitter drink: The cultivation of the cacao tree traces back over 3,000 years ago to the Maya, Toltec and Aztec civilisations. They crafted a bitter beverage from cocoa beans mixed with spices like chilli. This drink carried profound cultural and medicinal significance, employed in the treatment of various ailments and shared during marriage ceremonies.

From drink to bar: Like many other plants, cocoa beans were brought to Europe from South America around the 16th century by colonists and missionaries. The first exposure to the drink was not a favourable experience for the Spaniards – deemed too bitter. It became more widely available in the 17th century, but eating chocolate was not in regular production until the mid-19th century.

Cacao fruit juice? The flesh of the cacao fruit is also used in some countries to make a sweet and sour fruit juice.

Health Benefits

What’s in the bean? Cocoa beans contain many nutrients and plant compounds, including:

  • Fibre
  • Minerals, such as magnesium and copper
  • Flavanols, such as epicatechin – a subclass of polyphenols that are abundant in cocoa and linked to numerous health-promoting effects. They also contribute to the bitter taste of chocolate.
  • Proteins – We don’t typically eat chocolate for its protein content but it’s a plant-based source of essential amino acids with about 18-20g of protein in 100g of cocoa powder.

Cocoa and its compounds have been linked to numerous health benefits.

  • Heart health. Human studies link chocolate consumption to improved cardiovascular health – in particular blood vessel function, blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease. These benefits are attributed to cocoa flavanols supporting the production of nitric oxide in the cells lining blood vessels, which helps relax blood vessels and improve blood flow.
  • Cognitive function. Cocoa and cocoa-derived products have also been linked to improved memory and thinking skills in a number of human trials. For example, a prospective study found a 41% lower risk of cognitive decline in participants aged 65 and above. Researchers suggest that cocoa flavanols could interact with signalling pathways that promote neuronal function and improve blood flow to the brain.
  • Gut health. Emerging evidence points to a potential ‘prebiotic’ effect of cocoa because it contains various compounds (namely fibre and polyphenols) that can serve as nutrients for beneficial gut microbes. In a trial, daily intake of 85% dark chocolate improved gut microbial composition and diversity.

How much? Studies used a variety of doses, so we still need to determine the amount needed to provide health benefits. Somewhere between 25 to 40 g of dark chocolate (70%+) seems recommended to get a standard dose of cocoa flavanols.

What about sugar? Cocoa-derived products   come in a diverse range. We can’t group all chocolates as ‘health-promoting’ because many products are low in cocoa and high in added sugar and fat. These results align with chocolate high in cocoa solids.

Tasty Tips

3 qualities to look for

  1. High cocoa content: Opt for dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids (above 70%) to get more beneficial plant compounds from the cocoa beans.
  2. Minimal ingredients: A high-quality dark chocolate bar will have cocoa (or cocoa mass, cocoa liquor) and cocoa butter at the top of the list. Look for minimal ingredients, higher fibre and low sugar content.
  3. No extra ingredients: Avoid artificial flavours and additives, like palm kernel oil, used as a substitute for cocoa butter.

Just like wine and coffee, quality dark chocolate is a symphony of quality ingredients, expert craftsmanship, and unique flavours.

Experiment! If you’re not used to the stronger flavours, start with lower percentages and gradually increase. Try different products to find your favourite flavour profile – dark chocolate can be anything ranging from fruity to floral, not necessarily bitter!

Pair with complementary flavours like raspberries, cherries, kiwi, coconut or nut butter.

Take a moment to let it melt in your mouth: One of the reasons we love chocolate is for the textural change from solid to creamy as it melts on the tongue and releases a fatty film. Take your time to enjoy it – engage your senses, let it melt on your tongue and appreciate the intricate notes that dance across your palate!

3 chocolate-infused recipes


History & cultivation: Britannica | Kew | Wellcome Collection | Jstor

Composition: Martin et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2021

Cardiovascular health: ​​​​​​ Ren et al. Heart. 2019 

Cognitive function: Barrera-Reyes et al. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2020

Gut microbiota: Shin et al. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 2022



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