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Vital Signs: Milk & White Chocolate’s Sweeter, But The Dark Stuff’s Healthier


If you’re buying chocolate for Valentine’s Day, keep in mind a study last year that found dark chocolate healthier than milk or white chocolate – sort of. Sharon Cox, a Registered Dietitian with Parkland Hospital, explains why in this week’s edition of Vital Signs.

Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate:

  • Decreases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol oxidation
  • Reduces the risk of blood clots
  • Increases blood flow in arteries and the heart
  • May lower high blood pressure
  • Cocoa may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels because it consists mainly of stearic acid and oleic acid. Stearic acid is a saturated fat, but unlike most saturated fatty acids, it does not raise blood cholesterol levels. Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, does not raise cholesterol and may even reduce it.
  • May improve mood and pleasure by boosting serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain
  • Regular intake is associated with better cognitive performance in the elderly
  • Contains a number of minerals, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium

Health Concerns of Chocolate:

  • Caffeine: There are measurable amounts of caffeine in dark chocolate; individuals who are sensitive to caffeine should be aware.
  • Kidney Stones: Chocolate contains oxalates which can lead to an increase in urinary oxalate excretion. Increased urinary oxalate increases the risk of kidney stone formation. As a result, those individuals prone to developing kidney stones should reduce their intake of oxalate from food.
  • Migraine Headaches: Dark chocolate, which contains a natural chemical, tyramine, is thought to trigger migraines although the data is inconclusive. Not all individuals who suffer from migraines are sensitive to tyramine. 

What kind of dark chocolate should you buy?

Sharon Cox, RD, with Parkland Hospital recommends buying the plain kind, or one with almonds, with 70 percent or higher cocoa content. Read the nutrition label on chocolate; if you buy chocolate with a higher cocoa content, then you are getting more real cocoa.  When you take that number, subtract it from 100, and the remaining number tells you how much sugar was added. If a package shows 70 percent chocolate, the remaining 30 percent is sugar.

Are all types of chocolate healthy?

Cocoa has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste, and more flavanols are lost.  Dark chocolate contains the highest levels of flavanols. Recent research indicates that, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed, this may not be true.  Milk chocolates are loaded with other fats and sugars for taste, increasing calories.

But be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option.  Second, there currently is no established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits it may offer. More research is needed in this area.  

How much dark chocolate should you eat?

A moderate portion of chocolate would be one ounce a few times a week, and don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries.  Eat a smaller portion of dark chocolate to get the antioxidants, while limiting the calories.

What about all of the fat in chocolate?

The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids.  Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat (saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease).  But, research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. Still, this does not mean you can eat all the dark chocolate you would like.

How to mindfully eat dark chocolate?

Take your time – dark chocolate is rich and has complex flavors. Eat it slowly and mindfully to increase enjoyment. Try dipping fresh fruit in melted dark chocolate for a divine dessert.  Eat your meal prior to having your dark chocolate.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.