Many of chocolate's superpowers -- boosting mood, easing stress, helping with PMS -- are well known. But what about its lesser-known health properties? Recent studies have shown that eating chocolate can provide a whole slew of health benefits, from heart health to keeping you thin.
"Chocolate has a well-deserved health halo," says Beth Reardon, director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine, part of the Duke University Health System. "But not all chocolate is created equal."
Here are five surprising reasons to eat more chocolate -- as though you needed any more excuses -- and five tips for boosting its health benefits.
Chocolate boosts vision.
A British study in 2010 asked young adults to eat either dark or white chocolate, then tested their visual contrast sensitivity (their ability to read light-colored words on a light-colored background, for instance) and motion sensitivity (their ability to detect moving dots on a moving background). The participants came back later to try the other type of chocolate and retake the tests. Researchers found that, relative to white chocolate, dark chocolate better boosted scores on both tests and also improved spatial memory.
Picking out moving dots on a computer screen isn't an essential task for most of us, but what about driving at night? Being able to detect motion in low-contrast situations is a pretty important part of driving safely.
The authors suggested that the effects of chocolate on vision might be even greater in older adults, who generally have a harder time distinguishing contrasts.
Tip: Reardon says if you're going for a chocolate bar, choose one that's both 72 percent cacao or above and organic, since chocolate is a heavily-sprayed crop. Aim for half to one ounce per day -- about a two-inch square of most chocolate bars.
Chocolate helps with persistent coughs.
In a small British study in 2005, participants were asked to inhale capsaicin, the stuff that makes chili peppers spicy, and then were given various potential cough suppressants. The one that worked best? Hot cocoa.
Researchers found that theobromine, a derivative of chocolate, worked better than codeine to stop coughing, probably because of its effect on the vagus nerve, which links the brain to the stomach, heart, and other important organs.
Based on the findings, a British company is working to develop a cough syrup based on the compound that would have none of the drowsiness-inducing side effects of codeine-based syrups -- and might taste better, too.
Tip: Whether you're making cocoa for a cough or just to enjoy, be sure to choose non-Dutch-process cocoa, often labeled "100 percent cocoa" or "natural cocoa." Reardon says the Dutch process alkalizes the chocolate, removing some of the beneficial flavonols. It's still fine for baking but not as good for sipping.
Chocolate protects your skin.
A German study in 2006 found that the flavonols in dark chocolate can protect skin from the harmful effects of UV light. A 2009 study in Britain found similar results but noted that the levels of flavonols required to protect your skin are higher than those found in most standard chocolate. The special, high-flavonol chocolate used in the study increased blood flow and moisture content in the skin, helping to keep skin healthier and better looking.
Tip: When choosing a bar of chocolate, look for one with the fewest ingredients possible. "You don't want sugar to be the first or second ingredient," says Reardon. "Sugar negates the health benefits of the powerful antioxidants in chocolate." Instead, look for a bar that lists cocoa solids or cocoa mass as the top ingredient. Or toss a handful of bitter cocoa nibs into your granola, trail mix, or cookie dough. You'll get the health benefits of chocolate with no added sugar.
Chocolate prevents diarrhea.
If you had a bad case of the runs in 16th-century South America, you probably would have been given chocolate to ease your symptoms.
In 2005, a collaborative study between the Children's Hospital & Research Center in Oakland, California, and Heinrich Heine University in Germany found the scientific evidence to support the ancient treatment -- the flavonoids in chocolate can inhibit a protein called CFTR, which can cause the extra intestinal fluid secretion characteristic of diarrhea.
Tip: Not feeling up for something sweet? Try using chocolate in main dishes, whether as an ingredient for mole or a rub for short ribs. "It's healthy for us to think outside the box in terms of using cocoa," says Reardon. "We tend to think of chocolate as a sweet dessert, but an unsweetened chocolate is actually more savory."
Chocolate helps your heart.
A 2011 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal looked at more than 100,000 study participants in 7 different studies and found that eating chocolate cut the risk of various cardiovascular diseases by a third.
Separate studies have found that chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel health, and help regulate blood sugar.
Tip: Want bonus health points? Have a few dark chocolate-covered cherries, almonds, or ginger slivers. You'll get a compound effect from the chocolate combined with the other healthful ingredients.