Be Choosy about Chocolate
Not All Chocolate is Created Equal
-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
A dessert. An antidepressant. A favorite indulgence. Since its discovery thousands of years ago, chocolate has become many things to many people. The Mayan people crushed the seeds of the chocolate (cacao) tree and mixed them with spices to make a frothy beverage, which was consumed at social events and religious ceremonies. Chocolate was woven into many aspects of their culture—it appeared in much of their artwork and was even used as a method of currency.
Today, chocolate is used to satisfy a sweet tooth more than anything else. But recent research about the health benefits of chocolate may persuade you to explore the world of chocolate a little more. The findings suggest that the consumption of chocolate may help prevent high blood pressure, improve heart health, and provide a bounty of antioxidants. But all chocolate is not created equal, and not all types of chocolate offer these health benefits. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting your currency’s worth when you shop for a chocolate bar.
To get the health benefits of chocolate, choose dark varieties. The compounds that benefit your health (antioxidants and phenols) are in the cocoa solids. The more cocoa solids your chocolate has, the darker the chocolate will appear. But you can't rely on looks or marketing alone since any chocolate can be labeled "dark," even if it doesn't contain a high concentration of cocoa. The first ingredient on the label should be cocoa, chocolate, or cocoa liquor. Choose a product that contains at least 70 percent cocoa. This percentage should be listed on the label.
Avoid the Milky Way
Most varieties of mass-marketed chocolate bars are made with milk, which gives the chocolate a creamy texture that most people enjoy. Unfortunately, this combination inhibits the absorption of the beneficial compounds in cocoa (as does drinking milk along with chocolate). In other words, if it contains milk (milk fat, lactose, whey and other milk derivatives), the chocolate no longer has health-enhancing benefits.
Cocoa Butter is Better
During processing, cocoa butter, the natural fat of the cocoa bean, is removed. When a high-quality chocolate bar is made from this processed cocoa, the manufacturer will add cocoa butter back in to the recipe. However, commercial manufacturing giants save money and extend the shelf life of their products by adding unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to chocolate instead of cocoa butter. These companies save money at the expense of your health. Read labels and choose a chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not partially hydrogenated oils.
A high-quality chocolate bar is fresh and naturally tastes good. Artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives aren’t necessary unless a bar falls short of these standards. Choose a chocolate that is free of unnecessary additives for a better, healthier product.
Look for Freshness
Make sure the chocolate bar you’re eating is fresh. Upon inspecting the bar, you should find a glossy surface and a dark color with reddish-black undertones. Chocolate that is stored improperly will have a visible “bloom,” which either looks like grayish-white blotches and streaks on the chocolate or causes the chocolate to feel rough. Exchange it for a fresh bar.
There are other ways to consume chocolate besides bars. In fact, a 2005 USDA study found that unsweetened cocoa powder contained the highest concentration of beneficial compounds of all chocolate products. However, as with chocolate bars, not all cocoa powder is created equal. Many cocoa powders are “Dutch processed” or “alkalized” to reduce their acidity, but this processing also reduces their antioxidants and phenols. Natural cocoa powder provides the most benefits.
But what is one to do with this bitter powder, bearing in mind that mixing it with milk will take away its health-enhancing properties? If you’re brave, you could make an unsweetened chocolate beverage by stirring a heaping teaspoon of the stuff into 8 ounces of boiling water. Drink it much like you drink coffee—or even mix it with your coffee, which provides its own set of antioxidants!
The Dark Side of Chocolate
When choosing a chocolate product, consider looking for an organic certification. Over 30 different pesticides are used when growing cocoa beans, which are one of the world's most heavily sprayed crops. Certified Organic chocolate is made from cocoa plants that were not sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides, which could leave behind a residue in your chocolate.
Although your choice in chocolate bars can’t change the world, and should not replace other healthy foods, it can be a healthy treat if you choose wisely. Refer the following cheat sheet before your next trip to the chocolate shop:
|Good for Your Health||Leave it on the Shelf|
|"70% Dark Chocolate"||"Milk chocolate"|
|Cocoa butter||Partially hydrogenated oil|
|Cocoa liquor||Natural or artificial color|
|Dairy-free||Milk, milk fat, or lactose|
|Cocoa powder||Dutch processed or Alkalized|
|Thick, tight wrapper||Thin wrapper or exposed to light|
|Glossy, dark or smooth texture||Blotchy, streaky or rough texture|
|Organic||Conventional (no distinction)|