Can Chocolate Be Beneficial To My Health?
In the past few years, there have been several studies showing that chocolate may help protect your cardiovascular system. The reasoning behind this health claim is that the cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids. The higher percentage of cocoa (70% or higher) equals a higher amount of flavonoids.
Flavonoids help protect our body from environmental toxins and help repair damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are formed by breathing in environmental toxins (e.g cigarette smoke, harsh cleaning chemicals) or unhealthy lifestyle habits (e.g stess, poor diet).
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research points to flavanols as having potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.
Are all types of chocolate healthy?
Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols. Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. As cacao makes its way from bean to cocoa powder and chocolate, it not only goes through several steps to reduce this taste, the concentration of antioxidant compounds can be affected by all the processing.
Fermentation of fresh cacao beans also tends to decrease antioxidant content as does roasting of cacao beans and treatment of cocoa powder with alkali. Processing with alkali is called “dutching.” Dutching of cocoa is treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity and breaks down the flavanol antioxidants naturally found in cocoa and chocolate. Dutched cocoa can be identified on the ingredient panel of a food when labeled as “cocoa processed with alkali.”
What about all of the fat in chocolate?
The fat in chocolate, cocoa butter, is obtained from whole cacao beans that have been fermented, roasted, and then separated from their hulls. Cocoa butter is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids.
Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. You may read that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. However, before you put that dark chocolate bar down, know that research shows that stearic acid doesn’t appear to raise cholesterol levels. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate.
Another benefit to eating dark chocolate: 70 percent or higher cocoa content does not contain as much sugar as milk or semi-sweet chocolate. This still doesn’t mean though you can eat all the dark chocolate you’d like as calories do add up.
Determining the health benefits of chocolate comes down to one thing – the percentage of cocoa. Milk chocolate is only around 10% cocoa. Semisweet is around 35%. Both are high in sugars and other fats. Also, the processing of chocolate can lower the percent of cocoa, affecting the concentration of antioxidant compounds (flavanols). Shoot for chocolate that is at least 70% or higher cocoa and not processed with alkali to get the most health benefits and to satisfy that sweet tooth.
Don’t overdo it, though, moderate your intake of chocolate to one ounce a few times per week. To put it in perspective, specialty chocolate bars are about 3.5 ounces.
Some Healthy Dark Chocolate Brands:
Alter Eco – USDA Organic and Fair Trade. Range of dark chocolate.
Endangered Species – 72% Cacao and 88% Cacao bars. Also a 70% organic bar. Ethically traded cacao. Social enterprise.
Ghirardelli Intense Dark – 72% Cacao and 86% Cacao Chocolate Bars. They have bars as well as small squares.
Green & Blacks – 70% Cacao and 85% Cacao bars. Organic and sometimes fair trade (e.g. Maya Gold). The 70% includes Soy Lecithin. There are no genetically modified ingredients.
Lindt – 70%, 85%, and 90% Cacao bars. NOTE: Some of the bars are processed with alkali. Check labels carefully.
Pascha – Organic, fair trade, non-GMO dark chocolate. No soy lecithin. Range of 55%-85%
Taza – 70%, 80%, and 87% cacao bars. All 100% USDA organic.
Theo – Based in Seattle. 100% Organic, Fair Trade, and non-GMO certified. 85% and a large range of different flavored 70% bars.
Side Note: For those that are not big fans of chocolate, flavanols are found in a wide variety of foods and beverages. These include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.
– KARI MARTINEZ, MS, RD, LDN