If you’re a chocoholic, you may be hoping that chocolate has a place in a healthy lifestyle. Is chocolate really good for your health? Let’s talk about the different types of chocolate, why it can be good for you, and what to avoid to prevent damaging your health. Remember that while chocolate is a delicious snack it’s also high in calories, so moderation (some people consider that a four letter word) must be part of any chocolate consumption! Here’s what we will cover:
- The 411 on this yummy stuff
- The health effects of chocolate
- How to choose and consume chocolate for health
- The bottom line – is chocolate good for you
The Chocolate 411
The cacao bean is picked, fermented, dried, roasted, skinned, ground and melted to become liquor. This liquor contains about 43% cocoa solids, and 57% cocoa butter. It is then separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter and recombined in different proportions with sweeteners and milk to create the many forms of the chocolate candy that we love. To create a true work of art, the chocolate is conched and tempered as well. Here are some of the varieties of chocolate encountered:
- Natural cocoa powder: Mostly cocoa solids. It is acidic in nature, very bitter, and very high in antioxidants.
- Dutched cocoa powder: The acidity has been neutralized with the addition of an alkali. This gives it a mellower taste, at the expense of a great deal of chocolate’s natural antioxidants.
- Unsweetened Baking Chocolate: The solid form of the chocolate liquor, 43% cocoa solids and 57% cocoa butter, with no milk or sweetener. Additional cocoa butter or other fat can be added.
- Dark chocolate: Cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sweetener, in a variety of proportions ranging from 35% cocoa powder to 99% cocoa powder. Other fats can be substituted for the cocoa butter.
- Milk chocolate: Cocoa powder, cocoa butter (or other fats), milk and sweetener, in a variety of proportions.
- White chocolate: Cocoa butter, sweeteners and possibly milk, with no cocoa powder.
Health Effects of Chocolate
Chocolate contains a number of mood-elevating ingredients including tryptophan, serotonin, dopamine, and caffeine. Chocolate improves migraine symptoms and decreases harmful stress hormones. Raw cocoa, an incredibly bitter substance, is high in flavinol antioxidants, much the same as many other plants. These antioxidants decrease occurrences of heart disease and cancer, symptoms of stress and deterioration of brain functions. Cocoa powder even helps manage insulin levels by improving the body’s metabolism of glucose. Conversely, when sugar and milk are added to reduce the bitterness, the resulting milk chocolate increases insulin reactions and thus contributes to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Milk binds with the antioxidants preventing their release into the body. Additionally, processed cocoa contains far fewer antioxidants than raw cocoa. Even scarier is the high lead content found in processed chocolate. Even small amounts of lead can lead to problems with brain development.
How to Choose and Consume Chocolate for Health
The less processed the chocolate is, the better it is for us. Natural cocoa powder is extremely high in antioxidants. Cocoa powder can be added to savory foods, such as mole or chili. It can be used to decrease the gamey taste of game meat. Try natural organic cocoa powder or baking chocolate in inventive savory recipes, including stews, sauces, marinades and rubs. Buy cocoa powder with the nibs (beans that have been roasted and coarsely ground) for even more healthy experimentation in taste.
Next in line on the health meter is dark chocolate. One study showed that the consumption of a small amount of dark chocolate (75% cocoa solids) three times per week was sufficient to decrease heart disease and possibly cancer. Many fruits and vegetables will do the same thing. If you choose to consume some dark chocolate, choose an organic dark chocolate with at least 65% natural cocoa powder and eat a small amount several times each week. There are a number of healthy, tasty organic dark chocolate bars on the market that attempt to minimize the sugar.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate are both just feel-good junk foods. Yes, the caffeine and other mood-elevating elements may still be there, but save these forms of chocolate for the VERY rare treat. They are only detrimental to overall health. Also avoid using Dutched cocoa powder.
So, Is Chocolate Good for you or Not?
The bottom line is this: know your chocolate! Not all chocolate is created equal. Chocolate is good for your health, in forms that are close to raw. Chocolate that has been highly processed and mixed with unhealthy ingredients is not good for your health. Be picky and imaginative. Don’t regularly indulge. When you do indulge, enjoy it and don’t feel guilty!