Three Cheers for Chocolate

By Jocelyn Voo

It turns out there’s even more to love about one of the most decadent, satisfying foods on the planet. We’re talking about chocolate: Heavenly sweet treat, coveted comfort food, and former diet disaster. But now? New studies are proving that chocolate does, in fact, have a place in the health-conscious kitchen.

Research shows that cocoa and dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contain flavonoids, a naturally occurring phytonutrient found in plant foods like cocoa, tea, wine, nuts, and certain fruits and vegetables. The main flavonoids found in cocoa — flavan-3-ols and procyanidins — offer a host of cardiovascular benefits, including antioxidant protection and improved blood vessel function. "The flavonoids in chocolate are generally touted for heart health — they make blood less sticky, keep blood vessels flexible, and there’s less plaque formation to prevent heart disease," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

In fact, a 2007 study from the University of Nottingham Medical School in the United Kingdom suggested that this improved blood flow may also benefit the brain in terms of memory and learning ability.

Flavonoids also help prevent the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the blood, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association . There is also some evidence that these flavonoids may prevent certain cancers, such as skin cancer. A 2006 study also linked ingestion of flavonoids to increased UV protection, but that doesn’t make you invincible. Slathering on the sunscreen and snacking on a mini-Snickers will offer you the best protection.

From Cocoa Bean to Grocery Shelf

he cocoa manufacturing process, according to Emily Korns, a registered dietitian and Manager of Health and Science Communications at Mars Inc., involves the following:

  • Pod breaking
  • Bean fermenting
  • Bean drying
  • Bean cleaning
  • Bean roasting
  • Bean winnowing
  • Nib grinding
  • Liquor pressing
  • Cake alkalizing
  • Cake milling

Unfortunately, some of this lengthy process takes away from the bean’s natural health benefits. For instance, careful bean fermenting is necessary to develop the best chocolate flavor, but "significantly reduces the amount of flavanols," says Korns. "Unfermented beans contain the highest level of flavanols, but they taste bitter, without any chocolate flavor."

Flavanols are also lost during the bean-roasting process, since the high temperatures destroy them. Interaction with other ingredients, such as carbohydrate- and protein-containing ingredients, during batch processing also reduces flavanol content.

Does High Cacao Percentage Mean It’s Healthier?

In a nutshell, yes. "Higher percent means more antioxidant-rich cocoa bean and less sugar, so it is healthier," says Blatner.

The cacao percentage refers to the total cocoa bean content in the chocolate bar — chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder. The remaining ingredients consist mainly of sugar and possibly vanilla and lecithin, depending on the recipe. One hundred percent dark chocolate is the healthiest because it has no added sugar, but it’s generally too bitter to eat. It’s best when used in baked goods.

Dark vs. Milk vs. White

The gold medal winner is clearly dark chocolate. It contains the most cocoa bean in the form of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, so it has less sugar and more antioxidants. Milk chocolate is the runner-up with a similar blend to dark chocolate, except with less chocolate liquor and the addition of milk.

Consider white chocolate a second-string player, and keep it on the bench. "White chocolate is only the cocoa butter mixed with sugar," says Blatner. "No potent chocolate antioxidants hiding in there!"

Health Disadvantages

No matter how many heart-healthy benefits chocolate might have, it’s still a fat- and calorie-laden treat. The cocoa butter found within chocolate is also high in saturated fat. However, about a third of chocolate’s fat comes from stearic acid, which does not raise LDL cholesterol levels.

Chocolate also contains caffeine, though the amount is hardly significant when compared to your afternoon Red Bull or morning cup of joe.

The last word on chocolate, like with most indulgences: "It is good in moderation," advises Blatner. "About 1 ounce or 150 calories per day."

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