The good news is never quite as good as you wish. However, recent research suggests that eating a little chocolate a few times a week may deliver a cascade of health benefits.
Though most of the confirmed benefits are relatively modest, it may help prevent or control obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Chocolate may lower the risk of stroke and some cancers, improve athletic performance, protect brain function, and slow declines in cognitive function, help protect the skin from sun damage, and exert a positive influence on fetal growth and development.
Now there’s some healthy-eating news most of us can get behind! But it’s complicated.
How Chocolate is Made
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao), a small tree native to the tropics of Central and South America. The seeds look a lot like coffee beans.
After being separated from the husks, fresh cocoa beans are fermented as their pulp drains away. The fermented beans are generally air dried, and lightly roasted, and then move on to various forms of processing. They’re often chopped into crumbly chunks called nibs, the least-processed form of chocolate, containing the highest concentrations of healthful plant compounds.
Most commercial chocolate is made by grinding the beans into an oily paste that’s melted into what’s called chocolate liquor. When cooled and molded, the liquor becomes raw chocolate.
About half the chocolate liquor is the edible fat, known as cocoa butter, which is often blended into to chocolate bars to increase the creaminess, or used in skin-care products. Separated from the oil, dried, and ground, the resulting brown-colored solids become what we know as unsweetened cocoa powder. The solids contain most of the nutrients and beneficial plant compounds, and give chocolate products their brown color and chocolate-y flavor.
Types of Chocolate
Like most food industries, the chocolate business has a unique jargon. Apart from the jargon, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does have some standard definitions of chocolate products you might find useful:
- Dark chocolate is a chocolate product containing a high percentage of cocoa solids, typically 70 percent or more, though there’s no legal definition in the U.S.
- Bittersweet chocolate contains at least 35 percent pure chocolate with some amount of added sweetener and cocoa butter.
- Semisweet chocolate products also must contain at least 35 percent cocoa solids, but typically contain around 50 percent sugar.
- Milk chocolate, a product containing at least 10 percent cocoa solids and at least 12 percent milk (liquid milk, milk powder, cream, or condensed milk) plus cocoa butter and sweetener in varying amounts.
- White chocolate, with its creamy texture and mild taste, contains cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. It lacks cocoa solids, hence the white color.
Chocolate Health Benefits
Researchers have discovered that even the dark and extra-dark chocolate bars (containing 70 percent to 90 percent cocoa) recommended for health benefits can differ significantly in the amount of flavanols and other beneficial compounds they contain.
That’s partly because the cacao compounds identified as good for you are also extremely bitter, so the cocoa processed for your yummy chocolate bar may have had most of them stripped out.
Also, variations in the cocoa beans themselves and in the fermentation process separating the beans from the pulp may further reduce the beneficial compounds.
In other words, your expensive treat may contain a high percentage of cocoa, but not enough cocoa phytocompounds to deliver the promised benefits.
Although some chocolate companies have begun to offer products with a high-flavanol guarantee, many people looking for the health benefits of chocolate prefer to munch on unrefined cocoa nibs.
Straight out of the bag, the nibs are recognizable as chocolate, but they’re also dry and bitter—hardly the chocolate lover’s dream of that sweet, creamy goodness of a standard “chocolate bar.” Some people sprinkle their cocoa nibs on their morning oatmeal, or add them to smoothies, granola or trail mix, whose other ingredients help balance the bitterness.
Nibble on Nibs
Doctors suggest eating an ounce of cocoa nibs, or dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa several times a week to achieve its health benefits. Don’t overindulge! Chocolate is high in calories.
Also, chocolate contains significant amounts of the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. If you’re staying away from coffee and other caffeine-containing products, go lightly on the chocolate.
Important. Keep your chocolate treats and nibs away from family pets, especially dogs. The theobromine in chocolate is toxic and can be fatal to dogs. Theobromine is 10 times more concentrated in dark chocolate than milk chocolate.
If you have a dog, don’t even mulch your plants with that attractive, sweet-smelling cocoa-shell mulch, unless you choose a brand that’s theobromine-free. Fortunately, most dogs don’t eat cocoa shells, but those few who do may suffer adverse reactions.