What’s the story on chocolate?

chocolate and polyphenolsChocolate is big business, generating about $50 billion in annual worldwide sales. But is it good medicine? Before I get to that answer, let me give you some background on the manufacturing of chocolate.

The first use of chocolate appears to be about 3,000 years ago in Central Mexico to produce an intensely bitter drink called xocolatl. Today, we still get the raw material for chocolate from the seeds of the cocoa tree. However, now they are fermented and roasted prior to extracting the raw cocoa beans from their pods. The raw cocoa mass is then ground and heated to produce what is called chocolate liquor.

This chocolate liquid is exceptionally bitter because it is rich in polyphenols. This is what you get when you buy unsweetened baker’s chocolate. Keep in mind that even with the extreme bitterness of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, the total polyphenol content is only about 5 percent of the total mass (the rest is cocoa butter). This means that purified chocolate polyphenols are about 20 times bitterer than the taste of unsweetened baker’s chocolate.

The chocolate liquor can also be further refined. The most common way is to remove the fat portion (i.e., cocoa butter) from the chocolate liquor by simple pressing. What remains is the cocoa powder that retains all of the polyphenols but in a dry form that can be ground to a powder. The isolated cocoa butter is the base for making white chocolate. Although it is free of any of the beneficial polyphenols, it still retains the excellent mouth feel of the cocoa butter. Add some extra sugar, and it is a great-tasting snack that has absolutely no health benefits.

You can always add more sugar to the cocoa liquor to sweeten the chocolate taste. That’s the ”dark chocolate” that dominates the market today. Of course in the process, you dilute out the polyphenols, which give chocolate all of its health benefits, not to mention increasing calories and increasing insulin levels because of the added sugar. That’s why eating dark chocolate will not help you lose weight. When you add more sugar and milk to the dark chocolate, the bitter taste (and the health benefits) is even reduced further. Now you have a milk chocolate candy bar.

Now what about the health benefits of the chocolate polyphenols before you start diluting them out with added sugar? Here the research data are clear. If you consume enough chocolate polyphenols, you will reduce blood pressure (1). This is probably due to the increase of nitric oxide production and its beneficial effects on relaxing the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels (2). How much is enough? Over a two-week period about 500 mg of polyphenols per day (this is the amount found in a typical 100-gram bar of unsweetened baker’s chocolate) can significantly reduce blood pressure by about 4 mm Hg (3). If you are willing to consume smaller amounts of very dark chocolate (providing 30 mg of polyphenols per day) for a much longer period of time, there is an improvement in endothelial cell relaxation, but without a reduction of blood pressure (4). Therefore, the blood pressure benefits of chocolate consumption appear to be dose-related. There is also evidence of chocolate polyphenols having some anti-inflammatory properties (5).

Considering these benefits, should chocolate be considered a “super fruit”? To answer that question, a recent publication compared the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) values of unsweetened cocoa to similar-size servings of other fruit powders from “super fruits,” such as blueberries, pomegranate and acai berries (6). The ORAC value is a measure of the ability of the dried fruit to quench free radicals. The cocoa powder had a significantly higher ORAC value per serving than the other fruit powders. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the typical cocoa powder in the supermarket has been treated with alkali (i.e. Dutch-treated) to remove much of the bitterness of the polyphenols and in the process remove most of their health benefits (6).

So if you want the health benefits of chocolate, just make it bitter (i.e. unsweetened baker’s chocolate) and eat a lot of it (about 100 grams per day). You won’t lose any weight, but your blood pressure will come down a bit. Now if you want some real anti-inflammatory benefits, eat the chocolate, take 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA and follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Now you have a far more powerful dietary approach for reducing cellular inflammation and its clinical consequences, such as elevated blood pressure.


1. Ried K, Sullivan T, Fakler P, Frank OR, and Stocks NP. “Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis.” BMC Med 8:39 (2010)

2. Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, and Schomig E. “Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial.” JAMA 298: 49-60 (2007)

3. Grassi D, Lippi C, Necozione S, Desideri G, and Ferri C. “Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons.” Am J Clin Nutr 81: 611-614 (2005)

4. Engler MB, Engler MM, Chen CY, Malloy MJ, Browne A, Chiu EY, Kwak HK, Milbury P, Paul SM,Blumberg J, and Mietus-Snyder ML. “Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults.” J Am Coll Nutr 23: 197-204 (2004)

5. Selmi C, Cocchi CA, Lanfredini M, Keen CL, and Gershwin ME. “Chocolate at heart: The anti-inflammatory impact of cocoa flavanols.” Mol Nutr Food Res 52:1340-8 (2008)

6. Crozier SJ, Preston MG, Hurst JW, Payne JM, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Caco seeds are a super fruit,” Chemistry Central Journal 5:5 (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Health and tagged , , , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

28 thoughts on “What’s the story on chocolate?

  1. Hi Dr. Sears,

    Could you comment on any potential benefits of consuming raw cacao powder (aka raw chocolate powder)? I’ve been eating an organic one which states it is cold pressed and milled at low temperatures to preserve flavanols and polyphenols. It’s good stirred into plain yogurt with spoonful of extra virgin oil or a little almond butter.



  2. It is an excellent source of polyphenols. By itself it should be intensely bitter indicating the presence of high levels of polyphenols. The plain yogurt with some extra good fat is an excellent delivery system for those chocolate polyphenols.

  3. I mix about an ounce (28g) of Raw Cacao Nibs into my morning shake. Maybe that’s excessive, but it adds a nice chocolate flavor and I can handle the bitterness.

  4. From Mr. Sears article I don’t think it would be possible to derive health benefits without consuming large quantities of an almost inedible product. There are richer and more palatable sources of polyphenols than that such as yogurt without real blueberries.
    ; )

    • You would need a 1 1/2 cups of blueberries to get the same ORAC value as a 100 gram bar of unsweetened chocolate. I have that amount of blueberries each morning balanced with an eight egg white omelet cooked with two teaspoons of olive oil. It’s a perfect Zone breakfast.

  5. I’ve been using 3 teaspoons of cinnamon per day (in coffee) because I read it has 7,000 ORAC units per teaspoon. Are cinnamon antioxidants also polyphenols? If so, are they of the same auality as the ones in chocolate and in those great fruits?

    • Yes they are. The ORAC values are a measure anti-oxidant capacity of any polyphenol. However, polyphenols can have different effects on reducing inflammation and activating AMP kinase.

  6. What could be considered dark baker type chocolate?

    I live in North Europe and am not aware of anyone selling baker’s unsweetened chocolate, although chocolate powder is easily found. I eat either 86% produced by Marabou, or 90% dark chocolate, produced by Lindt & Sprüngli. I got accustomed to the slight bitterness. Could these be considered “dark baker type chocolate?”

    The so called 86% version contains 19% of carbs, where 14% of total carb being sugar/100g. The so called 90% version contains 14% carbs, 7% of total carb being sugar. This would mean consuming a 100g bar 86% would give around 2 blocks of carbs, and a 90% bar would give about 1.5 blocks of carbs. The fat content is way up there, though, with 54% out of the 86% bar being fat, 33.5% of total fats being saturated in that bar. Quite a few blocks of fat there. For the 90% bar, 22% is fat, 12% being saturated, so way better.

    • Lindt now makes a 99% chocolate bar. It has a slight better taste that 100% (unsweetened chocolate). I think 92% strikes a good compromise of flavor and polyphenols with the lowest levels of added sugar. But it is still a lot of saturated fat that can activate NF-kappaB thus turning off inflammatory genes.

  7. Dear Dr. Sears Are there any health benefits in eating honey and cinnamon together?
    Question 2: I am currently using 4.2 grams of EPA & DHA. I eat instant oatmeal or Oat Bran in the morning. How can i tell if i am getting too much GLA. I also take 81 mg of asperin per day and 5 Miligrams of Lysinapril for blood pressure. I also take 2400 miligrams of Vit. C(non-acid) and 400 miligrams of Vit-E. I take my C and E with my Fish oil . I sometimes feel weaker and wonder if i am experiencing the spill-over effect. Thank You. Read all your books Don Thomason. Avid Biker with Oklahoma Bicycle Society.

    • Cinnamon is pretty good sweetener is its own right, especially for oatmeal. I would drop the honey.

      I would suggest to stop using the GLA for a week and follow your progress using the Eicosanoid Status Report on drsears.com to see how your body is responding. I usually recommend no more than 2 mg of GLA per day for normal individuals. You will get that amount from one cup of slowed cooked oatmeal. The instant oatmeal will have virtually no GLA.

  8. Hi,

    I am trying to duplicate Starbuck’s chocolate smoothie at home and if I can give it more nutritutional value that would be good too. The receipe in case anyone wants to do it is 1 cup milk, 2 tablespoon protein powder, about a cup of ice cubes, 1 banana and they put in this mocha syrup. Now you cannot buy the mocha syrup so I cannot do that. What chocolate should I use? I thought maybe just hersey coca but if there is some better source I would like to know. You can of course, use strawberries instead of chocolate but I want the chocolate because I love that taste.

  9. Check the cocoa carefully. If it says Dutch or alkali-refined, then the polyphenols have been destroyed. That’s why it tastes less bitter. You might want to consider just adding a few squares of unsweetened baker’s chocolate to get the polyphenols and use extra strawberries to sweeten the smoothie. Finally add the extra protein to balance off the sugar in the strawberries.

  10. Pingback: Next Level Weight Loss Support | For All You Chocolate lovers!

  11. Isn’t the protein in 8 eggs way to much to balance the carbs in 1 1/2 cups of blueberries? I must be missing something. I eat the same foods for breakfast but in different proportions.

  12. 8 medium egg whites is about 25 grams of total protein, 1 1/2 cups of wild blueberries provides about 30 grams of total carbohydrates, and 2 teaspoons of olive provide 9 grams of fat. This is ratio that works for me as indicated by my lack of hunger for next 5-6 hours.

  13. Hello Dr Sears

    What is your opiinion on the phytic acid and tannin content of cocoa powder as far as anti-nutrient properties which would deplete calcium, zinc and magnesium? This is a hard question to ask as I am an avid dark chocolate lover myself!

  14. Dr.Sears said 1 1/2 cups of wild blueberries provides about 30 grams of total carbohydrates BUT
    Dr. Sears does not deduct the 6g of fiber in 1 1/2 cups of wild blueberries which brings down the count of digested carbohydrates that Dr. Sears consumes to a total of only 24g., less than the protein of 25g. and NOT a perfect Zone breakfast.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, Dr. Sears.

    Once a person eats a Zone breakfast and goes to meetings and conferences all morning for the next 5 hours like Dr. Sears, sure, the person will forget about food because he is concentrating on other things. But what about the retired person or people who have nothing else to concentrate their thoughts on? Seems to me the Zone works best for those who are too busy to think about food and hunger.

    • You are correct in your calculations, but as I mentioned that particular breakfast works for me. Likewise so doing consuming 4 oz. of grass-fed beef and 2 pounds of roasted vegetables at night.

  15. Dr sears is it possible to produce a normal sweetened chocolate with added amounts of polyphenols that are actually stable through out the mnufacturing process ?

    • It is possible as there are some 4000 known polyphenols. However, many of the benefits of those polyphenols will be eroded by adding the refined sugar in normal chocolate because of the impact on insulin secretion. You are always better off taking polyphenols in a capsule since they are extremely bitter to the taste, and you can remove all of the extraneous ingredients that add nothing to their anti-inflammatory potential.

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