Dark Chocolate Antioxidants

What's all the fuss about dark chocolate antioxidants?  What are antioxidants, anyway?  What do they do for us?  How does dark chocolate fit into the picture?  Here's the basic info.

Unsweetened cocoa powder is one of the highest antioxidant foods
Photo by Blair Christensen, under license
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder. Among the highest antioxidant foods.


Photo by Zoyachubby, under license
Cloves, the highest antioxidant food tested, with a 314,446 ORAC score


Although we need oxygen to live, oxygen is also highly corrosive.  It results in rust in metals.  In humans, the "rust-like" result of our interaction with oxygen is the production of harmful compounds called "free radicals".  Oxidation occurs naturally, as a byproduct of our metabolism, but it is increased by certain lifestyle activities, such as smoking, poor diet, and exposure to sun, pollution, and radiation.

Our bodies have a natural ability to counter oxidation, but this natural ability declines with age, while the negative effects of oxidation are generally cumulative, becoming more and more evident with age.

Free Radicals

Photo by Luc Viatour, under license
Cinnamon:  312,400 ORAC score

As oxygen interacts chemically with our bodies, one of the by-products is free radicals.  Free radicals are highly chemically active, and will attach themselves to various compounds in otherwise healthy cells throughout the body, causing cellular and DNA damage, and resulting in even more free radicals.

A certain small amount of free radicals are needed in the body, to combat infection, for example, but in general the body is always attempting to "clean up" the free radicals.

Acai berry
Acai berry, one of the "super berries"


Antioxidants remove free radicals from the bloodstream by providing a compatible compound with which the free radical can attach, without causing any cellular or DNA damage, and without producing further free radicals.  As their name suggests, they counter the effects of oxidation.

Dark Chocolate Antioxidants

There are several beneficial antioxidant compounds found within raw cocoa.  The less processing the cocoa undergoes before we consume it, the more of these antioxidants remain.  So we are looking for three factors to maximize our dark chocolate antioxidants.

Goji Berries, also known as Wolfberries
Photo by miheco, under license
Goji berry, or Wolfberry, another "super berry"
First, the larger the percentage of cocoa the better.  Second, the chocolate will contain more antioxidants if it has not undergone the "dutching" process.  And third, no milk should be added, since consumption with milk seems to counteract the positive effects of the antioxidants.  Bottom line:  the darker the chocolate the more dark chocolate antioxidants.

If you do any research on dark chocolate antioxidants, you are going to come across a large number of terms.  Here is how they all fit together.

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Pecans, the highest ORAC score of nuts tested, at 17,940

Basically all foods contain phenols, which is really a very large category of compounds.  Among the phenols is another very large group of compounds called polyphenols.  One set of polyphenol compounds found within cocoa phenols is called flavonoids (sometimes spelled "flavanoids").  One grouping of these flavonoids is called flavanols,  among which are procyanidins, epicatechins, catechins.  These are the antioxidant compounds found within raw cocoa:  your dark chocolate antioxidantws.

How Much?

Photo by AdonicO, under license
Walnuts, ORAC score 13,541

The standard method for measuring the amount of antioxidants in foods is with the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score.  You will find this score represented in may ways:  sometimes as ORAC score per serving, and sometimes as ORAC score per 100g.  The second method is better for comparing the concentration of antioxidants in two or more foods.

You may have heard that many fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants.  Foods such as blueberries, red wine, and grean tea get a lot of "antioxidant press".  But how do the antioxidants in these foods compare with other foods, with each other, and with dark chocolate antioxidants?  In 2007, the US Department of Agriculture produced a report comparing the ORAC values per 100g of several hundred foods.  Here's what they found.

  Green tea
Photo by Peyri Leigh, under license
Green tea

Among the foods with the highest concentrations of antioxidants are spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, and oregano.  Beans score very highly among vegetables, as do artichokes.  The superstar fruits are berries, with what I call the "super berries":  acai, maqui, goji, chokeberry and elderberrry scoring very high; and more readily available berries such as cranberry, blueberry, and blackberry also doing very well.  The top three nuts are pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts.  Red wine scores well, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.  Green tea appears half way through this list, with a very respectably ORAC score.  Keep in mind that green tea is zero calorie.  Drink as much as you want.

  Dark chocolate is very high in antioxidants
Photo by Diana House, under license
Dark chocolate is very high in antioxidants

After the spices and one of the super berries, dark chocolate (unsweetened, undutched, cocoa powder) is higher in antioxidants than any of the other foods just mentioned.  Dutched unsweetened cocoa powder, then baking chocolate, then dark chocolate candy, also score very well.

If your dark chocolate comes with one of the other foods listed here, that's even more antioxidants.

And don't confuse regular drinking cocoa powder with any of this.  That's basically sugar.  Look at the bottom of the chart below for comparison.

Some ORAC Scores

Here's a chart showing the ORAC scores of the foods mentioned.  These are measured per 100g of each food.  To help different food types stand out, the spices are in black, the fruits (berries) are in blue, nuts are brown, vegetables are green, and drinks are red.  The chocolate foods are bolded black.

Food Rank ORAC Score
Cloves 1 314,446
Cinnamon 3 312,400
Oregano 5 200,129
Acai Berry 6 161,400
Cocoa Powder, unsweetened 10 80,933
Maqui Berry 12 75,000
Baking Chocolate 16 49,926
Cocoa Powder, unsweetened, dutched 19 40,200
Goji Berry, or Wolf Berry 27 25,300
Dark Chocolate Candy 31 20,823
Semi Sweet Chocolate Candy 33 18.053
Pecans 34 17,940
Chokeberry 36 16,062
Elderberry 39 14,697
Walnuts 43 13,541
Hazelnut 44 9645
Cranberry 45 9584
Artichoke 48 9416
Red Beans 50 8459
Black Beans 52 8040
Milk Chocolate Candy 57 7528
Blueberry 63 6552
Blackberry 73 5347
Red Wine, Cabernet Sauvignon 76 5034
Red Wine 89 3873
Green Tea 179 1253
Cocoa Mix, powder 251 485
Source: US Department of Agriculture, 2007

What Now?

  Red wine
Photo by Peyri Leigh, under license
Red wine, especially Carbernet Sauvignon

The scientific jury is still out on exactly how much, and which kinds, of antioxidants are needed, or are best.  Scientists are unsure how the body absorbs the antioxidants from these foods.  Also, too much of many of the foods that are great sources of antioxidants can be harmful in other ways.  Too much fruit provides too much sugar.  Too much wine is never a good thing.  And, of course, too much dark chocolate provides too many calories.  There is no evidence at this time that there is a maximum amount of effective antioxidants.  It seems to be "the more, the better."  It also appears that a mixture of good antioxidant-rich foods is best, providing better overall results than individual sources alone.

I think this leads us back to eating a well-balanced diet, containing many different foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.  Dark chocolate, in moderation, conaining plenty of dark chocolate antioxidants, can be a great, contributing, part of that healthy diet.  Great news for us!

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