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Be Choosy about Chocolate

Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian and 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 chocolate’s naturally occurring phytochemicals, called flavanols, may help to prevent high blood pressure, improve heart health, and increase insulin sensitivity. 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.

Manufacturing Chocolate
All chocolate originally comes from cacao (or cocoa) beans. The beans are harvested, dried and shipped to processing plants where the outer layer is removed. The stripped-down bean is then roasted and milled to produce chocolate liquor. The liquor is used to make cocoa powder for both dark and milk chocolate, chocolate mixes and chocolate syrups. Some cocoa powder is further processed to produce what’s known as Dutch cocoa powder.  “Dutch processed” or “alkalized” reduces the acidity, but this processing step reduces the beneficial flavanols by 60-90 percent.

Concentration Counts
The flavonoid content of chocolate and cocoa-related products varies greatly and labels can be tricky to decipher. The amount of flavonoid content is based on the amount of cocoa solids contained, the processing techniques used, and even the growing conditions of the beans.

  • Dark chocolate has the most flavanols, so look for a product with at least 70 percent cocoa.
  • Milk chocolate has less flavanols because less cocoa powder is used; but it does contain some. ·        
  • White chocolate is really not chocolate at all, rather it is cocoa butter (the fat). It has zero flavanols. ·        
  • Cocoa powder has more flavanols than does Dutch processed or alkalized cocoa powder.
  • Most chocolate milk is made with Dutch cocoa, since it mixes better with cold liquids; but that means much of the flavonoid content has been removed. 
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.
All Natural
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
  • While it may not be eye-appealing, there is nothing dangerous with eating chocolate that has a white or grayish film on the surface. It just means the cocoa butter has separated and risen to the surface. This is called “fat bloom.”
  • The sugar in chocolate can crystallize when exposed to rapid temperature changes and humidity. It is safe to eat, but you probably won’t enjoy the grainy texture. 
  • Chocolate maintains its freshness best if wrapped tightly and stored at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This prevents the cocoa fat from turning rancid and developing an off-taste. Store your chocolate in a dry environment away from strongly scented foods such as onion, garlic and spices. Chocolate is best if consumed within a year of production.  
Before Unwrapping
  • If you are not a chocolate lover, leave it on the shelf. There are plenty of other ways to obtain health-promoting flavonoids.
  • If you are a chocolate lover, then balance calorie intake when having this tasty treat. Select dark chocolate that provides at least 70% cocoa solids. Currently there is not an established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits. So for now, enjoy moderate portions of dark chocolate (no more than a 1-ounce) a few days a week. Avoid the “chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered-coconut sprinkled” dark chocolate which is by no means a heart-healthy food option. ·        
  • To get more of those beneficial flavonoids, make your own chocolate milk, chocolate soy milk, hot chocolate drink, chocolate meal replacement shake or protein shake by stirring in:
    • a cocoa mix made with natural (untreated) cocoa, or    
    • natural (untreated) cocoa, plus the sweetener of your choice
  • For your individualized medical plan that incorporates chocolate…talk to your doctor or health care provider.  More research is needed to determine therapeutic recommendations, dosing, and effect of different chocolate brands.
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