Few foods evoke as much passion as chocolate. Now and then, chocolate lovers may reveal that the notion of giving it up, even if it means being healthier, is often out of the question. Fortunately, this is one instance when you can have your chocolate and eat it too, because study after study has confirmed that chocolate is actually very good for you.
However, not all chocolate is created equal. Only dark chocolate is healthy, not milk chocolate, not white chocolate and not any combination in between.
Why Dark Chocolate Is Healthy
Chocolate is made from cocoa bean (cacao), which comes from plants. That means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables. Cocoa contains flavonoids which are naturally-occurring compounds found in plants. Flavonoids act as antioxidants, helping the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal metabolism, the immune system, and environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, and herbicides.
There is evidence that consumption of dark chocolate can:
- Lower blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure.
- Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by up to 10%.
- Stimulate endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure.
- Act as an antidepressant as it contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood among its many other functions.
- Act as a pick-me-up as it contains stimulants like theobromine and caffeine.
How To Choose The Healthiest Chocolate
A new 2009 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compared the cocoa antioxidant contents of commercially available chocolate- and cocoa-containing products marketed in the US.
The study concluded that products with the highest level of antioxidants were (in descending order):
- Unsweetened, unprocessed cocoa powder
- Unsweetened baking chocolate
- Dark chocolate
- Semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Milk chocolate
- Chocolate syrup
The study found that chocolate’s health benefits are derived mainly from the antioxidants present in cocoa. Therefore, it is not surprising that pure cocoa powder ranks number one when it comes to health benefits.
Also, the more processing (such as fermentation, alkalizing, roasting) the cocoa gets, the less antioxidant left in the end product. The typical commercial cocoa is treated with alkali to produce a darker, richer taste. This process can reduce the flavonoid content by as much as 50 percent.
- Therefore, if you want to make a healthy cup of hot cocoa, choose untreated, non-alkaline, cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed cocoa) and add in your own sweetener and milk.
- When buying dark chocolate, find a high quality one that has been minimally processed. The chocolate should not contain unsavory ingredients such as soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavorings.
- Be cautious of the type of dark chocolate you choose. Avoid fillings with caramel, nougat, or marshmallow, which are merely additional sugar and fat.
- Avoid milk chocolate as it contains very little antioxidant-rich cocoa. Research also shows that the milk protein in chocolate may bind with the antioxidants and make them less easily absorbed by the body. Therefore, to get the most antioxidant benefit, don’t wash your chocolate down with a glass of milk.
- Avoid white chocolate as it contains no cocoa. White chocolate is just fat and sugar.
Who Should Avoid Eating Chocolate
Despite all the positive research, this is not a license to consume as much dark chocolate as you like. If you are struggling with any serious diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, or cancer, you should refrain from eating chocolate as most chocolate contains sugar and sugar depresses your immune system.
If you have acne or any acne-like skin eruptions, chocolate will likely aggravate the skin condition.
If you suffer from migraines, chemicals in chocolate may trigger the headaches.
If you have intense chocolate cravings, you are likely not eating the correct balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for your metabolic type. Once this imbalance is addressed, you will find that your desire for sweets decline substantially.
If you tend to seek comfort from chocolate when you are upset, angry, bored, lonely, or depressed, you have some deeper unresolved emotional issues that need to be dealt with. If you have a hard time handling them, you should reach out for professional help instead.
The Bottom Line
It is undeniable that chocolate contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant effects. Although chocolate may be a preferred choice of treat, it is not advisable to indulge. Chocolate is a perfect example of when less is more. Researchers found that about ¼ ounce of dark chocolate per day is the ideal amount to achieve protection against inflammation and heart disease.
Keep in mind that your best choice is raw cacao (cocoa bean) or unprocessed cocoa powder, followed by dark chocolate. If you opt for most commercial, heavily processed chocolate, don’t expect it to be healthy.
Lastly, although chocolate is derived from plants and is antioxidant-rich, it is not a substitute for vegetables which are loaded with other healthy substances like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Further, chocolate contains sugar and fat and is much more calorie-dense than vegetables.