With its high sugar and milk powder content, milk chocolate isn’t typically regarded as a healthy food. As referenced earlier, researchers found that the Kuna people, who lived near Panama, consumed large amounts of cocoa regularly and had good cardiovascular health. But they later found that the cardiovascular attributes were likely linked to the group’s overall tropical environment, not the chocolate.
Also, the cocoa used by indigenous cultures isn’t the same as the chocolate candies Western cultures indulge in now.
Still, researchers today are fascinated about the potential cardiovascular benefits of chocolate, especially dark varieties, which have larger amounts of cocoa than milk chocolate. Some studies even point to dark chocolate’s potential role in lowering high blood pressure.
Part of this is linked to the high flavanol content of cocoa beans, which are plant compounds that may help improve overall vascular health thanks to their antioxidant properties.
Such compounds may also reduce the long-term risk of cancer, heart attack, and stroke, notes Mayo Clinic.
The higher the cocoa content, the more flavanols you’ll consume. While regular milk chocolate technically contains flavanols from cocoa, these likely aren’t enough to have a positive impact on your health.
There’s also some research being done on dark chocolate’s role in the possible prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, although more studies are still needed.
For example, one December 2019 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health noted some studies that suggested cocoa (and, more specifically, its flavanols) may have a beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity, and may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes.
The review also noted, however, that eating a placebo dark chocolate that had very low polyphenol levels had a negative effect on fasting insulin levels and insulin resistance. These side effects were not found in subjects who ate polyphenol-rich dark chocolate.
In general, chocolate with a higher cacao percentage seems to offer the greatest boon to your health. Cocoa loses some of its beneficial flavanols when it undergoes processing, and eating chocolate that’s high in sugar and calories is likely to cause weight gain and disrupt insulin balance.
It’s also not clear if there is an ideal amount of chocolate to eat for the most health benefits. One meta-analysis, published in July 2017 in Nutrients, examined in the review found that the diabetes-preventing effect of chocolate was highest at two 30 g servings of chocolate per week, and that eating over six servings of chocolate per week did not continue to lower diabetes risk, but this meta-analysis did not specify the cacao content of the chocolate studied.
Overall, if you’re looking to satisfy a sweet craving, you’ll get the most benefits from dark chocolate, not milk or white chocolate varieties. As a rule of thumb, the more bitter the taste, the higher the cocoa content. Moreover, to reap the health benefits of chocolate without adding too many calories to your plate, dietitians usually recommend limiting your dark chocolate intake to 1 oz per day.