Chocolate lovers abound, but there's confusion about the beloved food's impacts on health.
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If you're a chocolate lover, you may feel confused about whether eating it is beneficial or detrimental to your health. As you know, chocolate has various forms. White chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate—all have different ingredient makeup and, as a result, their nutritional profiles aren't the same. Much of the research has been conducted on milk chocolate and dark chocolate as these contain cacao solids, parts of the cacao plant. After these solids are roasted, they are known as cocoa. Many of the purported health benefits of chocolate are related to components of cacao solids. It may surprise you, but white chocolate actually doesn't contain cacao solids; it only contains cocoa butter.

Any kind of chocolate can fit into an overall well-rounded eating pattern, but are there specific health benefits to eating chocolate regularly? In this article, we'll share the latest research on the health effects of eating chocolate regularly.

Might Improve Your Heart Health

Dark and milk chocolate contain cacao solids, parts of the cacao plant, albeit in different amounts. Cacao contains flavonoids—antioxidants found in certain foods such as tea, berries, leafy vegetables and wine. Flavonoids have various health benefits, including improved heart health. Since dark chocolate has a higher percentage of cacao solids by volume, it's also richer in flavonoids. A 2018 review in the journal Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine found some promise in improving lipid panels and blood pressure when consuming moderate amounts of dark chocolate every one to two days. However, this and other studies have found mixed results, and further research is needed to confirm these potential health benefits. For example, a 2017 randomized control trial in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that consuming almonds with dark chocolate or cocoa improved lipid profiles. However, consuming dark chocolate and cocoa without almonds did not improve lipid profiles.

a pile of chocolate
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May Reduce Menstrual Cramping

As mentioned above, milk and dark chocolate have different nutritional profiles. Another difference is that dark chocolate is richer in magnesium. According to the USDA, 50 grams of dark chocolate contains 114 milligrams of magnesium, which is about 35% of adult females' recommended dietary allowance. Milk chocolate contains about 31 milligrams of magnesium in 50 grams, about 16% of the RDA. Magnesium has been shown to help relax muscles, including the uterine lining. This can help ease menstrual cramps, potentially leading many menstruating individuals to crave chocolate during menstruation, per a 2020 article published in Nutrients.

May Boost Your Iron Levels

According to a 2021 study in the Journal of Nutrition, iron-deficiency anemia is on the rise. It can lead to symptoms including fatigue, weakness and brittle nails. But for you chocolate lovers, we have good news! Dark chocolate is a good source of iron. A 50-gram serving of dark chocolate contains 6 milligrams of iron. To put that in perspective, females ages 19 to 50 require 18 milligrams of iron per day, and adult males need 8 milligrams per day, per the National Institutes of Health. Diana Mesa, RD, LDN, CDCES, owner of En La Mesa Nutrition, says, "Dark chocolate can be a tasty way to increase iron intake, especially for folks at risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia, like birthing and menstruating people, older adults and children, who need higher amounts of iron. For better absorption, dark chocolate can be paired with foods rich in vitamin C, like berries, for a sweet and nutrient-rich snack." Unfortunately, milk chocolate only contains about 1 milligram of iron in 50 grams. So, if your iron levels are low, dark chocolate would be your best bet.

May Improve Your Cognitive Function

In a 2019 randomized control trial in Nutrients, daily dark chocolate intake for 30 days improved cognitive functioning in participants. The researchers attribute this to the methylxanthines in dark chocolate, which include theobromine and caffeine. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings and further understand the mechanisms that led to cognitive improvements.

May Increase Your Risk for High Cholesterol

While there are some potential health benefits of eating chocolate, there are also some possible negative consequences. White chocolate and milk chocolate are high in saturated fat and added sugars. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overconsumption of saturated fat and added sugars is associated with high cholesterol and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. One (1.5-oz.) milk chocolate bar contains around 22 grams of added sugars and 8 grams of saturated fat, while one (1.5-oz.) white chocolate bar contains 25 grams of added sugars and 16.5 grams of saturated fat.

Could Exceed Safe Heavy Metal Consumption

While dark chocolate can have positive effects on your health, a 2022 study by Consumer Reports found that eating dark chocolate everyday could be harmful for adults, children and pregnant people. They tested 28 popular dark chocolate brands and found that 23 contained levels of lead and cadmium that could be dangerous to consume on a daily basis. Consuming these heavy metals can lead to developmental issues, immune system suppression, hypertension and kidney damage in adults and children. To minimize the risk of consuming excess amounts of lead and cadmium through dark chocolate, make sure to research what products are riskier than others, only eat dark chocolate on occasion and stray from feeding children dark chocolate. 

Chocolate manufacturers are in the beginning stages of remedying the contamination of dark chocolate. The solution to this issue lies in the sustainability of dark chocolate production. Lead often seeps into cacao beans through contact with dirty equipment like tarps, barrels and tools. Cadmium contaminates cacao beans by being present in the soil they are grown in. As the beans mature, the level of cadmium increases. Some manufacturers are genetically modifying the cacao beans to take up less cadmium, or switching out trees for younger ones.

The Bottom Line

Research shows that dark chocolate has potential benefits for heart health, cognitive function and iron deficiency, since it is the type of chocolate richest in flavonoids, methylxanthines, magnesium and iron. However, more research is needed to further understand chocolate's health benefits and the mechanisms that lead to various health outcomes.

That being said, one food will generally not make or break your health (unless you have an allergy or severe sensitivity). Mesa says, "Allowing yourself to enjoy the foods you like without restricting leads to a healthier relationship with food. Restricting chocolate when you want it will only make you want it more, which can lead to overeating or bingeing, triggering feelings of guilt and shame. That cycle is more harmful to [your] health than allowing yourself that piece of chocolate." If you enjoy chocolate of any kind, consuming it in an overall well-balanced eating pattern is the most important thing. Check out our chocolate dessert recipes if you're ready to find your next favorite recipe.