With Valentine’s Day on the horizon there will be chocolate. But chocolate is good for you, right? Not so fast. Milk chocolate and white chocolate might taste deliciously sweet but if you want some health benefits along with your indulgence, you’ll have to go to the dark side.

The percentage we see on chocolate refers to the total amount of ingredients that come from the actual cacao bean. Generally there is an inverse relationship between the percent cacao and the amount of sugar in the chocolate and since the higher percentage means more cacao solids, it also means more of the health benefits.

In terms of cell-protecting antioxidant capacity, dark chocolate (at least 70%) and especially raw cacao, greatly surpasses the well-known super foods blueberries and green tea thanks to an abundance of compounds called flavanols. These antioxidants are one of the keys to heart health because they defuse free radicals or unstable molecules that can (among other things) oxidize LDL cholesterol leading to the blood vessel injury that contributes to atherosclerosis. Flavavols in raw and dark chocolate also appear to promote the body’s production of nitric oxide, a powerful vasodilator that relaxes and widens artery walls and helps lower blood pressure.

The fact is that in the body, without minerals, quite simply, nothing works. Thank goodness then for chocolate and its significant mineral content. One ounce (28 grams) of unsweetened chocolate boasts twenty-seven percent of the daily requirement for iron, one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in North America. Magnesium is another big issue with some health experts estimating that as much as eighty percent of us have insufficient levels for optimal health. The same little ounce of unsweetened chocolate provides sixteen  percent of the daily requirement for this stress-busting mineral. Magnesium is needed in over three hundred chemical reactions in the body and helps promote healthy blood pressure and (ironically) balanced blood sugar. Copper (critical for heart health) and zinc (important for healthy immunity) are also well represented. As with all the health benefits outlined, the darker the chocolate the better; with raw cacao being the ne plus ultra.

Chocolate has a long history of association with feelings of euphoria and love due to its assortment of natural compounds some of which have been classified as mood-elevating and pleasure-inducing because they affect the neurotransmitters in the brain. One relatively newly discovered compound is anandamide, a messenger molecule that plays a role in pain, depression, appetite and memory and takes its name form the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. Chocolate also contains tryptophan which causes the release of serotonin, a known anti-depressant and feel-good Theobromine is yet another chemical in chocolate which is a mild natural stimulant that can make us feel alert but does not strongly stimulate the central nervous system like caffeine. It is also a vasodilator contributing to the cardiovascular benefits of improved circulation and blood pressure.

It is important to remember that not all chocolate is created equal. in terms of health-promoting benefits, and I repeat myself, that darker the better. So while I don’t require my nutrition clients to give it up, I do try to get them to come over to the dark side.

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