Yummy dark chocolate has so many health benefits it’s practically a health food — or is it? Before you dig into that heart-shaped box of decadent treats, find out how much dark chocolate really loves you back. 

It’s all about the flavonols

Dark chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, a natural source of flavonols. This group of compounds acts as antioxidants and has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease blood clots and boost blood flow, according to research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, unstable molecules that damage cells and increase the risk for certain diseases, including cancer and heart disease. But the flavonols in dark chocolate may offer other benefits as well.

Boosting memory. Older adults who drank a mixture high in flavonols for three months performed about 25 percent better on a memory test than a group who drank a low-flavonol beverage, according to a small study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Unfortunately, to reap these benefits you’d have to consume about seven average-sized chocolate bars a day — not exactly a prescription for a healthy diet.

Fighting inflammation. When Louisiana State University researchers tested cocoa powder in a simulated model of the digestive tract, they saw that human gut bacteria broke down flavonols, fermented them and produced heart-healthy anti-inflammatory compounds small enough to enter the bloodstream. They also noticed that a certain strain of “good” bacteria, lactobacillus, increased afterward, while levels of less-healthy gut bacteria declined. Researchers now hope to try this experiment in humans.

Keeping weight in check. Mice fed high-fat diets supplemented with one particular flavonol, oligomeric procyandins, kept more weight off than mice fed low-fat diets, according to a study. Researchers also noticed improved glucose tolerance in these mice, which could potentially help prevent Type 2 diabetes. Don’t try to justify your chocolate addiction with a mouse study, however — and keep in mind that those chocolate bars contain calories that add up.

How to get your fill of the good stuff

While researchers explore these early findings — and manufacturers try to figure out how to better maintain flavonol levels in chocolate — here are a few tips for indulging healthfully based on what we already know:

  • Focus on the percentage. The higher the cocoa content, the more flavonols you get in the chocolate. However, higher percentages of cocoa solids (above 80 percent) can taste quite bitter. If the 80 percent cocoa doesn’t do it for you, choose dark chocolate that’s at least 65 to 70 percent cocoa solids.
  • Scan the ingredients. To compensate for cocoa’s bitter taste, manufacturers take several steps to lessen this intensity — including adding milk and fat. This lowers the amount of flavonols, and of course it increases the calories. Avoid dark chocolate with added milk fat or hydrogenated vegetable oils, as well as products that list sugar as the first ingredient. To get more flavonols, look for dark chocolate that lists "cocoa solids" as its first ingredient.
  • Be a savvy baker. When you’re baking with chocolate and the recipe calls for for cocoa powder, opt for one that has not undergone Dutch processing. This process reduces the flavonol content.
  • Don’t overdo it. All chocolate contains fat and calories, so aim for a moderate amount — about 1 to 1.5 ounces — a few times a week.