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The Benefits of Dark Chocolate — Nature's Immune System Booster

Mary Luz Mejia

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Harness the super-food powers of dark chocolate for a delicious way to boost your immune system. Scroll down for a recipe to make an immune-boosting cup of hot chocolate.

There's always been something special about cacao — and chocolate, in particular. Apart from being touted as a "food of the gods," Theobroma cacao is a delicious mouthful for any mere mortal.

As a Certified Chocolate Taster and educator, I've learned about the finer points of chocolate, including how to boost the immune system naturally with dark chocolate.

Boosting Immunity With Chocolate

To harness these super-food powers, look for dark chocolate that's 70% cacao (or more) to nab some of the flavanols (plant chemicals) that may help protect the heart, since dark chocolate contains "2-3 times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids than milk chocolate," according to an article by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The article goes on to say that "Flavanols have been shown to support the production of nitric oxide (NO) in the endothelium (the inner cell lining of blood vessels) that helps to relax the blood vessels and improve blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure." This sounds like the makings of a good night's sleep!

Here's another tasty tidbit: a study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that the flavonoid antioxidants present in 70% dark chocolate "appear to support cognitive, endocrine, and cardiovascular health benefits."

The study looked at how cacao regulates cellular immune response, neural signaling and sensory perception. In layman's terms, cacao was shown to activate our body's T-cell response in fighting off illness.

Before you rip open that chocolate bar, remember that not all dark chocolate is created the same.

Chocolaty-Good Tips When Buying Your Bar:

  • If, for example, you're considering buying a grocery store bar, take a look at the ingredients. Should your bar contain oils/emulsifiers (i.e. soy lecithin), vegetable and other kinds of fat other than cacao butter, leave that bar where it is. You don't need the additives and preservatives.

  • The same goes for bars whose first ingredient is sugar — that's a candy bar, which by law cannot be called a chocolate bar since it contains too small a cacao percentage to be considered a chocolate bar.

  • If your ingredient list contains artificial flavors (such as vanillin), colors or other ingredients you need a chemistry degree to pronounce, drop it like it's hot. This isn't what you're looking for to boost your immunity.

  • For a good dark bar, here's what you need on the ingredients list: cacao, cacao butter and ideally, cane sugar, in that order. Aim for 70%, or higher if you like, but I don't recommend a 100% cacao bar without any sugar unless you know you like the full-throttle, or pleasantly bitter taste of good cacao.

  • Note: you can find dark chocolate bars that sub out the cane sugar with maple syrup, coconut sugar, monk fruit or xylitol if you prefer. Personally, I look for organic cane sugar from around the same area that the cacao comes from, but have enjoyed dark bars sweetened with alternative sugars.

  • As a Certified Chocolate Taster, I urge you to give a bean-to-bar dark chocolate a try — the flavors are astounding and the quality is vastly superior to commercially produced chocolate. Start by breaking a piece off and breathing in the chocolate's aroma. What do you smell? Place a small square on your tongue, breathe in deeply and let it melt, no biting! Chocolate this good is meant to be savored slowly, like you would a fine wine. Focus on the riot of flavors in your mouth. You may notice that they evolve and change as the chocolate melts.

Why Bother with Bean-to-Bar?

Bean-to-bar chocolates are usually made by a chocolate maker who has actually purchased the cacao beans, often in a direct trade method that supports cacao farmers by paying them an above-livable wage. It also supports their work of carefully growing and fermenting this prized product in countries spanning 23 degrees north and south of the equator.

There are at least ten steps that chocolate makers must then take to coax out the complex flavors of good cacao, which can include notes of coffee, stone fruit, fresh berries, bright citrus, red wine, rum, caramel, nuts and more depending on the region, the soil/terroir the cacao grew in and how it was fermented.

This is usually in contrast to commodity chocolate, found in commercial brands, which displays a lack of flavor depth since the beans are almost always over-roasted to compensate for poor treatment, mold formation during fermentation and other issues. For this reason, high levels of sugar and vanilla or vanillin are added to basically "mask" any defect in the chocolate.

Recipe for Immune-Boosting Hot Chocolate:

In many South and Central American countries, a hot chocolate either starts or punctuates the day. Since it's rich in iron, copper, zinc, magnesium and phosphorous, it's a delicious, feel-good way to get immune-boosting nutrients into you.

You can customize the following recipe to suit your preferences and needs — ideally to be enjoyed before dinnertime so that you don't give yourself a natural jolt of caffeine from the dark chocolate and keep yourself up at night.

Serves 1


  • 1 cup whole milk (or half milk, half water, or your choice of alternative, non-dairy milk)

  • 1 to 1.5 ounces good quality, 70% dark chocolate (not baker's chocolate), broken into small pieces

  • Raw cane sugar (should you like it sweeter) to taste

  • 1 cinnamon stick, to garnish (optional)

  • 1 pinch grated nutmeg, grated black pepper or chili powder (optional)


  1. In a small pot, add milk (or milk alternative), chocolate and sugar, if using. Using a whisk, mix together until milk is frothy and chocolate pieces are fully dissolved.

  2. Add optional spices if you like your cup a little more zippy (and Mexican-style), bring to a gentle boil. Serve in a mug with a cinnamon stick to garnish. Enjoy!

Giving your immune system a helping hand is as delicious as it is good for you. Read about why quality sleep is more crucial now than ever!

And if you're looking for other ways to help you have more energy during the day and boost your immunity, try the free Sleep30® Challenge by Sleep Number® to improve your bedtime habits. While 82% of participants experience better sleep quality, 74% improve or change a poor sleep habit.

Like diet and exercise, quality sleep has a profound impact on our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Because no two people sleep the same, Sleep Number 360® smart beds, with SleepIQ® technology, sense your movements and automatically adjust firmness, comfort and support to keep you both sleeping comfortably and provide proven quality sleep. Find your Sleep Number® setting for your best possible night's sleep, and if you own a Sleep Number®  bed, log in to your InnerCircle℠ Rewards account to see your exclusive offers, refer friends and more.


Colombian-born, Canadian raised Mary Luz Mejia is a twice nominated NATJA nominated freelance food/travel journalist, certified chocolate taster, Gemini-nominated former food TV producer and food content marketer. She has written for enRoute,, Toronto Star, Travel+Leisure, Ensemble Vacations, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Life to name a few.

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