Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Are Heart Healthy – but How Much Do You Need?

Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are heart healthy – but how much do you need?

Sitting by the fireplace sipping hot cocoa offers more health benefits than you might think. A growing number of studies support the idea that cocoa powder and dark chocolate are heart healthy. With heart disease being the most common killer anything you can do to lower your risk for heart disease is a “must do,” and who can argue with eating chocolate?

Research shows drinking hot chocolate or nibbling on dark chocolate improves the way blood vessels function, what researchers refer to as “endothelial function.” This basically means blood vessels relax more easily to allow blood to flow through. As a result, eating dark chocolate can lead to a small but significant drop in blood pressure. Plus, research shows people who eat chocolate at least twice a week have a lower risk for heart attack and stroke.

The question is how much dark chocolate or cocoa powder do you need to get these benefits? Don’t forget chocolate is pretty high in calories.

What Makes Dark Chocolate Heart Healthy?

Although dark chocolate is relatively calorie dense and contains a significant amount of fat, it’s also a rich source of antioxidant chemicals called flavanols. It’s these compounds, also found in sources like red wine, apples, and tea, that are likely responsible for the heart-protective benefits of dark chocolate.

Speaking of the fat in dark chocolate, the main type of fat is a type of saturated fat called stearic acid. Unlike some forms of saturated fat, stearic acid doesn’t raise LDL-cholesterol, the kind linked with heart disease.  In fact, dark chocolate has a favorable effect on blood lipids. However, if you want to avoid fat, you can use cocoa powder. This powder comes from cacao beans after the fat is removed during processing.  Therefore, cocoa powder doesn’t contain the fat that dark chocolate does. Cocoa powder has a higher percentage of antioxidant-rich flavanols than dark chocolate.

More Reasons to Get Your Daily Dose of Dark Chocolate

If you need another reason to enjoy a little dark chocolate each day, do it for the health of your brain. Preliminary research shows the flavanols in dark chocolate and cocoa powder improve brain function, more specifically, memory. In one study, participants who drank a hot cocoa drink twice daily containing 900 milligrams of flavanols for 3 months enjoyed enhanced memory and brain function. Studying for a test? Sip hot cocoa.

Not All Dark Chocolate Contains Lots of Flavanols

Of course, this brings up the question – what quantity of flavanols do you need to get the benefits? First, not all sources of dark chocolate and cocoa powder are the same. On some dark chocolate bars, you’ll see “percent cacao” listed on the label. This is a measure of the percentage of cocoa powder and cocoa butter in the product. The flavanols are in cocoa powder, so, ideally, you want a bar with a high percentage of cocoa powder. Unfortunately, the label doesn’t distinguish between cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

As a generalization, a bar with a higher cacao percentage will contain more flavanols, but that isn’t always the case. A dark chocolate bar may have a higher percentage of cocoa butter and less cocoa powder, making it low in relatively low in flavanols. Choosing dark chocolate isn’t so straightforward, is it?

Flavanols in Cocoa Powder

What about cocoa powder? During the processing of cocoa powder, a significant amount of flavanols can be lost. If you look on the label and cocoa powder is “Dutch-processed,” it’s likely very low in flavanols since this type of processing destroys the heart-healthy flavanols. The trade-off is Dutch processed chocolate has a milder taste because the acidic components have been neutralized.

To get the heart health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa powder, choose dark chocolate or cocoa powder with at least 200 milligrams of flavanols per serving and consume one serving per day. The problem is manufacturers don’t have to list the number of flavanols per serving and most do not.

When an independent testing service, Consumer Labs, tested a variety of cocoa powders and dark chocolate bars, they found lots of variation in flavanol content. The results show you can’t always judge the number of flavanols based on percentage cacao. For example, for some dark chocolate bars, you’d have to consume a lot of dark chocolate (and lots of calories) to get 200 milligrams of flavanols.

Of the dark chocolate bars they tested, the richest in flavanols was Baker’s Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Bar. You only had to consume 71 calories (about an eighth of a bar) to get 200 milligrams of flavanols. Another good choice was Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight.

Another thing to consider, some cocoa powders and dark chocolate bars contain heavy metals, including cadmium. This was confirmed by Consumer Labs. Both of the bars listed above had among the lowest levels of cadmium.

Choose Your Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Powder Wisely

You won’t get the full health benefits of dark chocolate if you grab any bar or container of cocoa powder. Look for a cocoa powder that isn’t Dutch processed and a dark chocolate bar that has a high cacao content (greater than 70%), but keep in mind that this isn’t always reliable. It’s just a general guideline. Some 42% of cocoa bars may contain more flavanols than a 70% one.

You also want a bar that’s tested for heavy metals and has low levels of dangerous metals like cadmium. Talk to the manufacturer, ask questions and find a bar you feel comfortable with.

The Bottom Line

Yes, dark chocolate and cocoa powder have health benefits. Research suggests you can get those benefits by consuming 200 milligrams of flavanols daily. If you choose a dark chocolate bar that’s high in flavanols (do your research), you should be able to get that by eating two small squares. It’s a nice treat after a meal. Enjoy!



Science Daily. “Love, chocolate good for the heart, says cardiologist”

University of Maryland Health Services. “Dark Chocolate”

Consumer Lab. ””Cocoa Powders, Dark Chocolates, and Other Flavanol Sources Reviewed”

Circulation. 2007; 116: 2360-2362.

Andrew Weil. “Is Cocoa as Healthy as Dark Chocolate?”


Related Articles By Cathe:

How Much Chocolate Should You Eat for Health Reasons?

How to Make a Healthy Hot Chocolate

How a Little Chocolate Does the Body Good

Are There Benefits to Eating Dark Chocolate Before a Workout?



Hi, I'm Cathe

I want to help you get in the best shape of your life and stay healthy with my workout videos, DVDs and Free Weekly Newsletter. Here are several ways you can watch and work out to my exercise videos and purchase my fitness products:

Get Your Free Weekly Cathe Friedrich Newsletter

Get free weekly tips on Fitness, Health, Weight Loss and Nutrition delivered directly to your email inbox. Plus get Special Cathe Product Offers and learn about What’s New at Cathe Dot Com.

Enter your email address below to start receiving my free weekly updates. Don’t worry…I guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will not be shared and you can easily unsubscribe whenever you like. Our Privacy Policy