Is Chocolate Good For You? The Health Benefits of Chocolate
By: Dave Asprey
-Alberto Villoldo, Podcast #79
Theobroma Cacao, the Latin name for chocolate, means “Food of the Gods” for a reason. It’s a heavenly way to lift your performance.
We’re not talking about junk chocolate in candy bars and sweet desserts; dark chocolate has a long history being used as a healing plant, a mood enhancer, and even an aphrodisiac. So you’re in luck: you can indeed use high quality chocolate to take delicious control of your biology.
(Sidenote: The recent return of Bulletproof chocolate bars to our e-commerce shelves makes the info in this post particularly pertinent. Readers may also want to take notice of the discount on chocolate products included as products of the month for October.)
Chocolate Does Good Stuff You Didn’t Know About
You’ve probably read that chocolate affects your brain by causing the release of the “happiness neurotransmitters” – serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Like coffee, chocolate is also a potent source of polyphenol antioxidants.
But experienced chocolate hackers also know chocolate to be a useful tool for improving performance in lesser-known ways. In fact, cacao exerts a systemic effect on the body, with benefits ranging from improved healthy blood flow and cognition to beneficial alterations in gut bacteria! Here are some of the most important benefits of chocolate (besides taste…).
Here’s a visual infographic of the benefits of chocolate. Check it out!
1. High Pressure Mood Improver?
One of the most alluring effects of chocolate consumption is its improvement in mood. Your mood matters even more when you’re stressed. Luckily, chocolate can help even in high-pressure situations, according to one study. Participants were asked to complete serial subtraction tasks of threes and sevens (counting down by 3s and 7s), and a rapid visual information-processing task to test sustained attention. Those who consumed cocoa flavanol drinks prior to the trial had overall better cognitive performance and reported less ‘mental fatigue’ than the control group.
2. Chocolate makes you eat less?
One of my favorite effects of chocolate consumption is a reduction in appetite. One study quantified this by giving participants a 100 g serving of either milk or dark chocolate two hours before being served an all-you-can-eat lunch. Ingestion of dark chocolate was correlated with a 17% lower calorie intake at the following meal, compared to the milk chocolate group. (I’d imagine that it’s because the casein in milk binds to the polyphenols in chocolate, making them unavailable to your body.) The new Bulletproof Chocolate Bars are enriched with another appetite reducer, XCT Oil for a double impact.
3. Maintenance of a Healthy Cardiovascular System
Regular chocolate consumption is also associated with improved markers for cardiovascular health. Notably, the polyphenols in cacao increase HDL cholesterol (the good kind), which in turns leads to decreased oxidized LDL cholesterol (the bad kind)[5-6]. Other effects include higher levels of circulating nitric oxide, [7-9] and reduced platelet adhesion,[10-11], resulting in improved endothelial function.
One study even found the particular cacao flavanol epicatechin to be responsible for the rise in nitric oxide, which is essential for vascular health. Bioavailability of nitric oxide is an essential determinate of vascular health as it regulates dilation tone, signals cell growth and inflammatory response, and protects blood vessels from clotting.
See Figure 1. Systemic effects of the cocoa flavanol epicatechin.
Importantly, vascular function profoundly modulates insulin-regulated glucose uptake. Thus, it should come as no surprise that dark chocolate consumption also improves healthy levels of insulin sensitivity.
4. Chocolate makes your skin glow…and may reduce sunburn?
Another cool thing chocolate does is help you maintain healthy skin by modulating healthy blood flow. In one study, two groups of women consumed either a high flavanol or low flavanol cocoa powder for a period of 12 weeks. While the low flavanol group showed no change in markers of skin health, subjects in the high flavanol group had on average 25% reduction in UV-induced erythema (sunburn) after exposure to a solar simulator.
Additionally, the high flavanol group recorded increased skin density and thickness, as well as better hydration and less transepidermal water loss.
5. Healthy Inflammation Levels From Powerful Antioxidants (for mice!)
Chocolate has inflammation-modulating properties. In one study, obese mice supplemented with cocoa powder had healthier levels of inflammation and insulin. These mice also had a 30% reduction in plasma levels of the major pro-inflammatory mediator interleukin 6. Additionally, a cross-sectional study of an Italian cohort discovered an inverse relationship between dark chocolate consumption and serum C-reactive protein.
6. Chocolate is a prebiotic!
While many studies assume that it is the cacao polyphenols acting directly to modulate biomarkers, it is most likely the case that at least some of the effect is indirect, and works through interaction with our gut microbiome. Research suggests that low molecular weight cocoa flavanols such as epicatechin and catechin can be absorbed directly into blood circulation, (unless you mix them with milk) but this is not so for the larger polyphenols. In this case, microflora in the colon work to break down high molecular weight polyphenols, so that the smaller secondary metabolites may circulate throughout the body.[20-21]
See Figure 2. Cocoa flavanols are processed by gut microbiota, and secondary metabolites can enter circulation.
If gut bacteria are feeding on the larger cocoa polyphenols, then it follows that the composition of the intestinal microbiome will be altered. In fact, one study did discover a beneficial prebiotic effect of high flavanol chocolate consumption. After a period of 4 weeks of consuming a high flavanol cocoa powder, subjects had a significant increase in bifidobacterial and lactobacilli populations, as well as significantly decreased clostridia levels. This was accompanied by significantly decreased C-reactive protein (which correlates to inflammation reduction in the body), which was associated particularly with changes in lactobacilli.
7. Cellular Rejuvenation (Anti-Aging)
Last, but certainly not least, cacao can enhance mitochondrial biogenesis, or, the creation of new mitochondria! If you’ve read about Unfair Advantage, you know how important it is to have healthy mitochondria, and more of them. It is the flavanol epicatechin in chocolate which is responsible for mitogenesis. In one study, oral administration of epicatechin to senile mice shifted numerous biomarkers towards those of young mice, including sirtuin 1, a well-recognized regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis.,  In another mouse study, treatment with epicatechin improved exercise performance by ~50% compared to controls, and enhanced muscle fatigue resistance by ~30%. The epicatechin group also recorded significant increases in mitochondrial volume in hindlimb and cardiac muscles.
Theobromine 101: The Magical Molecule In Chocolate Much Like Caffeine
There’s more than one reason both dark chocolate and coffee fall in the green zone of The Bulletproof Diet. Both are rich sources of polyphenol antioxidants. In addition, theobromine, the molecule in chocolate that is similar to caffeine, is the primary alkaloid found in cocoa that is responsible for multiple positive effects.
Although theobromine is present in other plants, it is relatively highly concentrated in dark chocolate, with measures between 237-519 mg per 50g. Many of its effects are similar to those of caffeine. This includes inhibition of phosphodiesterase, which in turn leads to an increase in the second messenger cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP).
Due to the molecular makeup of theobromine, while it promotes energy in the body, it doesn’t exert its effects on the central nervous system – so its effects are a more ‘gentle’, feel-good type of energy. Also, due to its molecular makeup, theobromine takes longer to clear from the body systems – allowing for a longer effect!
The immediate cognitive effects of chocolate are primarily accounted for by caffeine and theobromine. A study comparing the effects of cocoa powder versus an equivalent caffeine and theobromine powder found equivalent improvements in cognitive and mood assessments.
Coffee and chocolate are also both potent sources of beneficial polyphenols. Chocolate, despite its significantly lower caffeine content than coffee, has its own unique polyphenols, including the remarkable flavanol epicatechin as well as larger molecules which act as prebiotic fiber that benefit your gut bacteria.
It is said that dark chocolate is an “acquired taste,” and research suggests that theobromine may be the component responsible for our attraction to dark chocolate. One study demonstrated an increased liking for a ‘novel’ drink when it was mixed with theobromine. Theobromine may also have a significant effect on mood, as one double-blind study recorded that subjects were able to subjectively discriminate the effects of theobromine at doses as low as 100-560 mg.
Finally, to illustrate the difference between caffeine and theobromine, concentrated theobromine at higher doses (not chocolate) acts as a cough suppressant but caffeine does not. It is appears that theobromine inhibits sensory nerves responsible for chronic coughing, and there are pharmaceutical uses of theobromine unrelated to caffeine or chocolate.
Caveat #1: Sugar Reverses Chocolate
By now you may be interested in picking up some chocolate, but be sure you get one with as little sugar as possible, or even none.
While research shows that cocoa can have a beneficial effect with regards to maintaining healthy vascular tone and insulin sensitivity, the reverse is true for sugar. Eating sweetened chocolate is still not good for you. Beware of chocolate marketed as “sugar free” that may contain unhealthy artificial sweeteners, which are found in the “kryptonite” zone of the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap. The only recommended sweeteners are Stevia, erythritol from non-GMO corn, and xylitol from hardwood.
In one study, rats fed a high-fat, high-sucrose diet for 4 weeks displayed insulin resistance, and decreased endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS), which is responsible for creating nitric oxide in blood vessels. Other studies have demonstrated that the detrimental effect of sugar on vascular function is independent of obesity and insulin resistance, so sugar is bad for you even if you are in otherwise good health.[34-35]
Caveat #2: Chocolate Is More Contaminated With Mold Toxins Than Even Coffee
Unfortunately, due to intensive farming techniques and poor agricultural, processing, and storage practices, much of the world’s chocolate supply is contaminated with meaningful levels of mold toxins. One of the more insidious and dangerous forms of mycotoxin, ochratoxin A, was present in 98% of samples tested in one study. Of those contaminated with ochratoxin, the study found an 80% co-occurrence of aflatoxin as well. As you may know from reading my other research, mycotoxins amplify each other when more than one is present.
The problem starts because cacao trees are often infected with fungi and molds, as you’d expect from a tropical crop. Roasting moldy beans destroys the actual fungi, but it doesn’t destroy many of the toxins already produced by the fungi. Cocoa beans can become hosts for mold producing fungi during pre-processing at the farm, but this is particularly likely when beans are dried and stored for extensive periods. The good news is that one study found that the processing of cocoa beans into a finished product resulted in a 93.6% decrease in ochratoxin A. My experience is that mold toxins vary greatly from batch to batch and from brand to brand, and a brand with “clean” chocolate this month may not be clean the following month.
Because of its unique growing, harvesting, and processing methods, Upgraded™ Chocolate is designed to be the lowest-mold chocolate on the market. It is now available as a chocolate bar in addition to chocolate powder. This is an important way to ensure you are getting the awesome benefits of chocolate, without the negative effects of mold.
If you don’t have Bulletproof chocolate, keep the following in mind while selecting and eating chocolate:
- Make sure your chocolate is at least 85 percent dark chocolate;
- Know that European chocolate tends to be lower in mold toxins, as they have stricter government limits than the US;
- Take coconut charcoal with chocolate to bind some of the mold toxins like I always do.
This is one of my favorite questions to answer! Your options are practically limitless, but here are some places to get started:
- Drink cacao tea
- Add chocolate to your Bulletproof Coffee to make a Mocha!
- Make Bulletproof ‘Get Some Ice Cream’
- To learn more about spirit chocolate, listen to Podcast #79 featuring Alberto Villoldo.
- The Bulletproof Diet book – order it here now – has Bulletproof dessert AND dinner recipes that require high quality chocolate.
Craving chocolate yet? Don’t forget to check out the new Bulletproof chocolate bars we launched today in the Bulletproof store!
What are your favorite ways to eat chocolate?