by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD
You have heard the news. Chocolate is good for you. But before you dive into that chocolate wedding fountain or buy the biggest chocolate covered candy bar you can find, let’s temper the enthusiasm and get the facts. Health benefits can vary greatly depending on the chocolate you choose.
First a bit of background on chocolate might be in order. Chocolate is made from the seeds or cocoa beans of the tropical Theobroma Cacao tree. Theobroma appropriately means “food of the gods”. After collection, the beans are fermented, dried and cleaned. The beans, which are roasted to give cocoa its flavor, are finely ground
resulting in both cocoa butter and cocoa solids or paste. The cocoa butter and cocoa solids make up chocolate liquor. The name is liquor however there is no alcohol content. Chocolate liquor forms the basis of all chocolates with the amount of liquor in a product manipulated by chocolate producers. The darkest chocolates contain the most cocoa liquor with high cocoa solids and provide the best health benefits.
The three main types of chocolate are white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa liquor and contains only cocoa butter with milk solids and lots of sugar. Milk chocolate, also very sweet, contains milk solids but must have 10% chocolate liquor. Dark chocolate, including bittersweet, semisweet or sweet chocolate, is chocolate with both cocoa butter and cocoa liquor and usually contains 50% or higher cocoa content. Darker chocolates can be bitter so they often have some sweetener added.
What makes chocolate good for your heart? It is believed cocoa in dark chocolate provides healthy heart benefits because it contains one-third monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid, the same fat that is in olive oil. It also contains plant nutrients called flavonoids. Flavonoids give fruits, vegetables, tea and other plants their color. The higher the cocoa content of dark chocolate the higher the flavonoids and the greater the health benefits.
Clinical studies are showing chocolate in moderation may be beneficial. Flavonoids increase the total antioxidant capacity in your body allowing it to fight off free radical oxidative damage. A harmful increase in the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the bad cholesterol, leads to increased plaque on artery walls. Other potential positive influences of the flavonoids in dark chocolate on heart health include inhibiting blood clot formation, lowering blood pressure and decreasing artery inflammation. A few studies give chocolate credit for raising HDL (good) cholesterol.
When choosing chocolate for health, remember chocolate products vary greatly. Look for products, which label the “cocoa” or “cacao” by percentage. Such labeling is voluntary and not required in the United States. Chocolate that is labeled at least 70% or more total cocoa provides the most benefits. Check the ingredient list to make sure chocolate is the first ingredient. Your best choice is solid dark chocolate, not the caramel filled, nut covered milk or white chocolate bars. Chocolate mixes, chocolate syrup and chocolate blends do not provide the health benefits.
The big question is “how much should you eat each day?” There is no recommended dosage but it would be best to enjoy chocolate reasonably and keep your serving to one (1) ounce. With that as your guide, you will gain the benefits but not overindulge. Chocolate will never be a substitute for good colorful plant foods and is not a significant vitamin source. Think of it as a healthy treat. Here’s a tip: Try a combination of one (1) ounce of dark chocolate with a cup of antioxidant containing green tea and you will increase the health benefits.
Not all chocolates are healthy and many provide mostly calories as sugar and added fat. Choose wisely for your heart health. Don’t take this as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to eat all the chocolate you want. Everything in moderation is the motto, but properly chosen and moderately eaten, chocolate is fun and can actually be good for you. Enjoy!
Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.
As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.