Chocolate – ancient Mesoamerican civilizations considered it a ‘food of the gods,’ and as a major chocolate fan myself, I’m inclined to agree. The taste of chocolate is so appealing that for most people, finding additional reasons to indulge on the regular hardly seems necessary. But beyond the taste is its overlooked superpower: it’s actually good for you, in all sorts of ways. How to tap into its deliciously medicinal charms? Some food for thought on the world’s most beloved food:
Do chocolate right.
When I’m talking chocolate, I’m talking the good stuff, high-quality, dark chocolate, the darker the better, the grown-up version versus the kid’s stuff. I am not talking white chocolate or the crazy sweet ‘milk chocolate’ at the deli or the chocolate stuffed into Easter baskets. That’s because dark chocolate is where you’ll find the nutrients, antioxidants and medicinal effects that make it a treat truly worth indulging in. Better yet, a small square or two a day (about 1 oz.) is a satisfying dose for most people.
Chocolate does (kinda) grow on trees.
Before you get to savor it, that square of chocolate has been on quite a journey. It starts in regions close to the equator, as beans inside the pods that grow on the trunks of cacao trees. The pods are harvested from the trees, the beans are extracted and then fermented, dried, and roasted. Then they’re ground and go through several more steps to eventually become the delicious treat we all know and love.
What’s inside your chocolate counts.
Though it’s not quite a replacement for a multivitamin, dark chocolate does pack an impressive number of nutrients, vitamins and minerals into each bite. What will you find inside the average square? Healthy fat, protein, fiber, zinc and vitamin K, plus calcium, selenium, manganese, iron, copper, potassium and phosphorus, to name a few. Try getting all that from your next Oreo. With dark chocolate, the sugar content drops the darker you go. So, for example, a serving of Black & Green’s organic, very dark 85% cacao comes in at just 4 grams of sugar and its 70% cacao product at 9 grams. At the other end of the nutritional (and color) spectrum, the milk chocolate version weighs in at 13 grams of sugar and the white at 15 grams.
Chocolate delivers more than just delicious flavor.
When you crack open a bar, in addition to the chocolate-induced bliss, you’re also getting the benefits of the cacao’s flavonoids and antioxidants. They help support heart and metabolic health, help tamp down blood pressure, tame inflammation and reduce cancer risk. So, the darker your chocolate, the more antioxidant benefit you’ll get, which is why I always recommend buying dark chocolate that’s at least 75% cacao. Another bonus? Less sugar per bite – and that’s always a good thing.
The benefits are head to toe.
It’s not surprising that chocolate is a frequent subject of research studies (who wouldn’t want to be a chocolate researcher!). The upsides abound, with chocolate and the flavonoids it contains being associated with benefits that include:
- Improving heart health – according to a recent 2021 study, which found a link between regularly eating chocolate and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, and better regulation of oxidative stress biomarkers in patients with heart failure.
- Reducing blood pressure – by helping to relax blood vessels and improve endothelial function (the single layer of cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels, regulating the flow of substances and fluid in and out).
- Improving memory function – in the aging hippocampus and a lessening of normal age-related cognitive decline.
- Decreased insulin resistance – offering potential benefits for those with type 2 diabetes.
- Better gut health – which keeps immunity strong, and helps improve mood.
And there’s hopefully more good chocolate news to come. As a doctor and chocolate enthusiast, I’m looking forward to seeing the results later this year of a four-year clinical study of more than 21,000 adults, investigating the effect of consuming a daily cocoa extract supplement on the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other ills.
Handle with care, and shop like a pro.
Using chocolate as a force for good (health) isn’t hard, but you do need to keep an eye out for the best possible product, not only for your body but for the health of the people who harvest the product and of the earth itself. Next time you’re in the chocolate aisle – and some markets devote a huge amount of shelf space to chocolate – take a close look at the options and buy with the following in mind:
- Big numbers – the higher cacao percentage, the better for you, and the less sugar the chocolate contains, so think at least 80% cacao and up.
- Fewer ingredients – the good stuff will have chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. Next, it may list cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and/or cocoa butter – with few if any additional ingredients after that. Sugar should be the last on the list, ideally coming in at about 4 grams per serving.
- Do dairy-free – some studies have found that when milk or milk powder is an ingredient, even in some dark chocolate brands, the milk binds with the antioxidants and prevents their full absorption.
- Skip sugar-free – which are often loaded with artificial sweeteners that disrupt your gut and your hormones and can actually promote insulin resistance!
- Don’t go Dutch – no disrespect to the Netherlands but one study showed that ‘Dutch-processed’ cocoa tends to have a reduced flavonoid content, whereas Columbian cocoa beans have the highest total polyphenol content – making both the processing and growing region important from a benefits standpoint.
- Choose ones with the lowest levels of heavy metals – A Consumer Reports in December 2022 found high levels of cadmium and lead in many popular brands.
- Buy ethically, and look for legitimate certifications – Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and/or Direct Trade are the seals to look for as they ID companies that are working for improved industry conditions, sustainable practices and higher wages for farmers.
- Go beyond the bar – if you’d rather drink your chocolate, pick up ground roasted beans from brands like Crio Bru and, just like coffee, steep and sip. You’ll get a lift without the caffeine jitters.
- Keep powder in the pantry – as in, unsweetened cacao powder. Use it as a superfood add-in for baking; to make a chocolatey chia pudding; or to add flavor to your morning coffee.
- Walk on by – the crappy, sugar-packed kid’s stuff hot chocolate or cocoa ‘mix’ – that stuff is best left on the supermarket shelf.
Bottom line: Chocolate is a delicious, functional-food luxury and a helpful treat I am always happy to prescribe, so enjoy, doctor’s orders. Savor it, one small square at a time, one or two squares a day is plenty. Eat yours slowly and mindfully and truly enjoy each morsel and be sure to avoid over-doing it. Even healthy, low-sugar dark chocolate can be too much of a good thing if you’re not paying attention.