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June 15, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Is dark chocolate actually healthy?

Having someone tell you dark chocolate is healthy feels like a cruel joke. This can't possibly be true, you muse, as you wipe chocolate stains from the corner of your mouth. 

So, in search of answers about whether dark chocolate actually is kinda-sorta healthy, we reached out to Dr. Stephen Olex, a specialist in cardiology and integrative medicine at Brind-Marcus Center for Integrative Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital

When compared to milk chocolate, is dark chocolate actually the healthier choice, or is that a myth?

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities.

I think that, as of now, it’s better to stick with dark chocolate, to have a lot of the benefits of chocolate. Dark chocolate has these vital nutrients, flavonoids, which have these antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties in the body. They’re not unique to dark chocolate — they’re also found in tea, red wine and other fruits and vegetables. So, dark chocolate is also a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, selenium and zinc. But, as of now, dark chocolate is a better choice. We know it has a lot of effects in the body: It can reduce blood pressure to a certain extent … and there’s evidence to suggest dark chocolate can help prevent LDL module from modifying into an oxidized LDL form [which contributes to heart disease]. Dark chocolate also seems to improve blood vessel function and increases the sensitivity to insulin, which is a good thing ...

We used to think dark chocolate has the highest level of flavonoids, but depending on how dark chocolate is processed, this may not be true. From what I understand, most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep flavonoids in their chocolates, even after they’ve been processed. But like I said, for now, dark chocolate over milk chocolate is probably the best choice.

What should people look for in an ingredients list? As you said, not all manufacturers make it the same way.

So for me, the less processed the better. The more that it’s processed, the less flavonoids it has, and that's where the health benefits come from. Generally, I look for 70 percent cocoa, and probably the more the better for that. With the ingredients, of course, look for any added ingredients — like caramel or marshmallows — that would add a significant amount of sugar and fat to it. So probably the shorter the ingredient list, the better, and the less processed as well.

Is dark chocolate vegan?

It definitely would be. [But] if you see items such as whey, casein, milk, milkfat or milk solids, it would be of animal origin and would not be vegan.

What does milk chocolate have — or not have — that makes it better?

It probably has [fewer] flavonoids as of now. And more sugar, generally.

All the health benefits in mind, what are the risks with dark chocolate?

I think, to me, moderation is really the key. I wouldn’t want somebody to go out and have a pound of dark chocolate a day. There is sugar in it; there is saturated fat in it; and also, some healthy fat as well. But I think moderation is really the key, as with anything else.

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