Although word on the street is that chocolate is good for you, most people are a little sketchy on the details. Does all chocolate have health benefits? How much is enough? And what exactly are the benefits? For those of us who love chocolate, the latest research findings are encouraging.
Any discussion of chocolate must start with the cocoa, or cacao bean, from which chocolate is derived. The bean is actually the seed of a tropical tree originating in Central and South America. Once harvested, cacao beans are first fermented to bring out the flavor, then dried, cleaned, and roasted. The shell is removed and the bean is broken up into nibs, which in turn yield chocolate liquor, or pure chocolate, when ground. At this point, the cocoa butter (fat content) is usually separated from the cocoa solids, to be added back in various proportions later, depending on the final product.
Technically, it is not chocolate but cocoa solids that contain the antioxidant polyphenol flavonoids that offer us health benefits. The further chocolate gets from pure cocoa solids, the fewer benefits it offers. In other words, a bittersweet dark chocolate bar is better for you than a milk chocolate bar (which dilutes the cocoa solids with sugar and milk) because it contains a higher proportion of cocoa solids. White chocolate, made from cocoa butter without any cocoa solids at all, offers no flavonoids.
Choose Dark over Light
When you’re shopping for chocolate, pay attention to the percentage on the label. It refers to how much cacao is in the bar. An 85 percent dark chocolate bar is 85 percent cacao. Generally, 70 percent and higher dark chocolate bars contain enough flavonoids to be considered beneficial.
The best-established health benefits of eating dark chocolate are lower blood pressure and lower levels of heart disease and stroke, according to numerous studies. Some preliminary research indicates chocolate high in flavonoid content improves brain function through increased blood flow. Cocoa flavonoids also lower blood levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, elevate HDL or “good” cholesterol, and reduce the risk of diabetes, according to a meta-analysis of published research. These health benefits are similar to what has been found for red wine and tea, which also contain polyphenol flavonoids.
Cocoa Reduces Inflammation
The newest news on cocoa helps us understand the mechanism that makes dark chocolate so good for your heart. According to research released in March 2014, the polyphenol flavonoids in cocoa, including catechin and epicatechin, are too large to be absorbed in the intestinal tract. Researchers from the Louisiana State College of Agriculture found that beneficial bacteria in the colon break down the large molecules into smaller, anti-inflammatory polymers. When the body absorbs these compounds, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of heart disease and stroke.
According to the leader of that research, John Finley, Ph.D., the amount of cocoa powder that appeared to produce beneficial effects was about two tablespoons a day. He recommends skipping sweetened chocolate altogether, and sprinkling two tablespoons onto oatmeal, as he does every morning.
Finley’s inclination to forego sweetened chocolate is a good one. A 3.5-ounce bar of 70 percent dark chocolate contains 625 calories; more than half of which come from fats, so eating chocolate in moderation is key. Although most of the fats in cocoa butter are of the heart-healthy variety, many manufacturers add in unhealthy fats as well, particularly in cheaper chocolate.
So when you’re choosing chocolate in the store, buy the best you can afford, and make sure it’s got a high percentage of cocoa solids. The flavors are much more intense with dark chocolate, so it’s easier to be satisfied with a square of it. Savor it slowly after a meal, enjoying the silky way it melts on your tongue and noticing the undertones of fruit or spice.
Another good way to enjoy good dark chocolate is to make a dark chocolate almond bark. Carefully melt the chocolate, stir in some whole roasted almonds and dried cranberries (three super foods in one dish!), and then spread onto a parchment or aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. If you’d like, sprinkle a bit of coarse sea salt on top. Let cool, then break into pieces and refrigerate. It keeps for up to a week.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based writer, teacher, and yoga instructor.