It’s long been considered the ultimate indulgence – a rich, romantic treat that not only tastes good, but makes you feel good too. It can also be a guilty pleasure, thanks to high amounts of fat, sugar, and calories. But while it’s true that indulging in too much chocolate might result in unwanted pounds, the confection doesn’t need to be the enemy. Here’s some good news about chocolate that should help assuage any guilt you have about consuming it.

It’s good for the environment
Cacao, or cocoa, is the seed of a rainforest tree, so growing it helps support endangered rainforest areas. And eating chocolate is not only good for the rainforest ecology, it can also be good for the farmers whose incomes depend on that land. Ninety percent of cacao is grown by small family farms in ranforest areas. So by default, it’s a sustainable crop. Better yet, to ensure that family farmers are benefitting from your dollar, seek out chocolate labeled “fair trade certified.”

It’s good for your mood
Chocolate contains hundreds of different chemicals, some of which are thought to act like antidepressants on the brain. Eating chocolate stimulates the release of mood-affecting chemicals such as endorphins, phenylethylamine, and serotonin. These feel-good chemicals may also explain why women often crave chocolate when they are dealing with PMS. Serotonin levels often drop in the days before mensturation begins, so eating chocolate can help boost those levels and improve one’s mood.

It packs more antioxidants that a bowl of blueberries
Cocoa beans – the primary building block of chocolate – are a rich source of antioxidants. Specifically, they contain flavanols, antioxidants found in various plants that work to protect the body from damaging molecules called free radicals. These flavanols (which are found in various berries, fruits, vegetables, red wine, and tea) have also been shown to have beneifical effects on the cardiovascular system – especially reducing blood pressure and helping to promote healthy blood flow. Now hears the part many people don’t want to hear. In the presence of protein, these healthy antioxidants will pass right through your body unutilized. So if you’re a milk chocolate fan, you’re not getting any of the benefits of chocolate and only the fat and sugar. The same thing would be true if you enjoy a glass of soymilk with your chocolate. So it’s best eaten with almond or rice milk. Sorry milk chocolate fans. More and more chocolate bar labels proclaim the percentage of cocoa in the bar. That percentage is a general indicator of how rich and dark the chocolate will be. The higher the percentage the darker the chocolate. A higher percentage of cocoa will also mean that the chocolate contains a larger amount of antioxidants, since the cocoa powder is what gives chocolate its antioxidant punch.

It’s not bad for your cholesterol
Thanks to those same antioxidant flavanols, chocolate has been shown to actually help raise HDL (the good cholesterol) and lower LDL (the bad one), which in turn helps prevent plaque from building up in the arteries. Perfectly pure cocoa is a cholesterol-free food. Of course, the addition of cocao butter will add artery-clogging fat to chocolate.

It actually contains nutrients
The cocoa bean is rich in vitamins B1, B2, and D, as well as the essential minerals magnesium and iron. While no one is suggesting that you substitute a chocolate bar for your daily multivitamin, it’s nice to know that the treat isn’t made up of entirely empty calories.

It won’t give you a caffeine buzz
Cocoa does indeed contain some caffeine, but you’ll have to eat quite a bit to give yourself the jolt of a single-shot latte. An ounce of milk chocolate contains about 6 milligrams of caffeine, while an ounce of dark chocolate contains about 20 milligrams. By comparison, a cup of brewed coffee can have up to 120 milligrams and even an average can cola packs about 35 milligrams of caffeine.

Adapted from an article by Sally Wakyka, a freelance writer based in Boulder, CO, who specialized in health, nutrition, and fitness.

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