By Shelley Rosenberg, BA, CPT, PN1
What comes to mind when you hear the word chocolate? I asked a few different people this question and here are some responses I got – “Yum”, “Delicious”, “Sugar”, “Guilty pleasure”, “Immediate shame”. Here are some facts about chocolate that might change what you think when you hear that word.
- Where does chocolate come from and how do we get it? Chocolate comes from the cacao tree. These trees are grown predominantly in Central America, the Caribbean, Indonesia and Africa. Pods grow on the trees which contain what is called cacao beans. The beans are fermented, roasted and cracked before leaving cacao nibs behind. The nibs consist of 47% cocoa solids and 53% cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is the main source of fat in chocolate and where the majority of the calories come from.
After the nibs are extracted from the beans, they are ground into a paste (kind of like peanut butter). Different ingredients, such as sugar or vanilla, are added to the paste to make it a little more appealing to your taste buds. Without any ingredients added, the chocolate would taste more like unsweetened baking chocolate which is very bitter. Heating then cooling the paste with the ingredients added will give the chocolate its smooth texture. Without the heating process, the chocolate would have a very gritty texture.
What is the difference between white, milk and dark chocolate? White chocolate essentially isn’t chocolate at all. The cocoa butter from the original cacao nibs is separated from the cocoa solids (which is the beneficial component) and mixed with sugar and other flavoring to give you white chocolate. Therefore, there are no health benefits stemming from white chocolate. Milk chocolate has roughly 12% milk solids and contains more sugar than dark or semisweet chocolate. This is the chocolate used for most candy bars and sweets because less real chocolate content is needed. There are essentially no health benefits to milk chocolate as well.
Dark chocolate has to contain at least 35% cocoa solids. Anything less than that would not be considered dark chocolate and would be in the semi-sweet category. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the better it is for you. This means there are less ingredients added to it to get to the edible chocolate that actually tastes good. Also, the highest content of cocoa solids means the highest amount of nutrients from the original cacao tree.
Is cocoa powder safe to use? Yes. Cocoa powder is the crushed powder left over after cocoa butter is removed from the cacao nibs. It is much better to use in recipes because it contains mostly cocoa solids (the better part of cacao nibs).
Now let’s get to the health benefits. When I talk about chocolate from here until the end of this article, I’m talking about high cocoa solid content chocolate or dark chocolate. Is there anything healthy about chocolate? Dark chocolate or high cacao content is what you should be looking for to receive any kind of benefit. Natural chocolate contains flavonoids. Flavonoids are a group of phytonutrients found in plants. Many fruits and vegetables contain flavonoids and so does chocolate. The fact that chocolate contains flavonoids is a large benefit in itself. Flavonoids contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatory affects, cardiovascular benefits, and nervous system support.
The health benefits from chocolate are different than the health benefits from green vegetables. Green veggies are proven to be a health benefit through their nutrient density. Chocolate is a different story. Chocolate contains different compounds that provide health benefits. Obviously, when those health benefits are mixed with sugar and additives (like milk chocolate) those benefits are null; kind of like eating celery and dipping the entire stick into ranch dressing.
Who feels better when they eat a piece of chocolate? Many people are in a better mood after consuming chocolate. However, eating too much chocolate could obviously result in negative feelings, physically and mentally, from overindulgence. Some studies have shown that cognitive performance can also be improved by chocolate intake. Even though dark chocolate may have health benefits, be wary when indulging. Everyone knows that chocolate contains sugar–even cocoa solids contain natural sugar. Excess sugar means fat storage and weight gain. Always eat chocolate in moderation. A few squares of chocolate won’t put on the pounds, just like a few celery sticks won’t take them off.
Chocolate also naturally contains caffeine. Caffeine itself can be addicting and when you add the appealing taste that chocolate has to that, it’s often hard to contain your consumption. On the other hand, chocolate can give you that quick little energy boost that you might need.
So, to wrap all of this information up, here are the facts. Chocolate containing high contents of cacao (dark chocolate) is the best option. For your health, chocolate may boost your mood, give you a caffeine boost, lower your blood pressure, provide antioxidants, reduce inflammation, and help curb your sweet tooth. On the other hand, consuming too much or the wrong kind of chocolate could have no benefit at all. This can increase blood sugar and cause weight gain if not eaten in moderation.
After learning about chocolate, I hope you have a different thought process about it. Now, when you hear the word chocolate, I hope you think “flavonoids”, “cacao”, “lower blood pressure”, “cocoa butter”, “cocoa solids”, and “moderation”.
What are the benefits of chocolate