By: Molly Hembree, MS, RD LD
Chocolate. We thought we’d catch your attention with one word! The decadence of chocolate – drizzled on your favorite dessert, enjoyed as a dip for fruit or eaten as a single piece to satisfy a craving – can be a slice of heaven on Earth.
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, with the largest cocoa tree producers in the world being Indonesia, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Cocoa beans are extracted from ripe pods, fermented, dried, roasted, alkalized, milled, pressed, pulverized, kneaded, heated and cooled to finally make the chocolate we know and love.
But what about the touted health benefits of chocolate? Is it too good to be true that something so indulgent can also be valuable in our diets?
1. Matter of the heart:
Chocolate, or rather cocoa liquor found in cacao nibs, contains some powerful compounds. Polyphenols, types of flavonoids or antioxidants, help support heart health. Specifically, it has been demonstrated that lipids are often positively affected by consumption of chocolate: HDL (good) cholesterol increases, triglycerides decrease and blood pressure has shown a small but statistically significant reduction.
2. Stroke risk:
Observational studies (studies where individuals are observed or outcomes are measured but no attempt is made to influence results) have suggested that chocolate is associated with reduced risk of stroke. This may be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of cocoa.
Chocolate contains a low to moderate amount of caffeine, ranging from about five milligrams of caffeine per ounce of milk chocolate to about 40 milligrams in an ounce of baking cocoa. Despite the fact that most of us should be avoiding caffeine, if you do not consume caffeine otherwise in your diet, it has been demonstrated that caffeine can improve alertness or increase endurance when exercising.
Good news for blood sugar! Improved insulin sensitivity is seen in chocolate consumption through reduced fasting concentrations of insulin and insulin resistance. It is suspected that this could work through cocoa’s ability to protect pancreatic cells, activate receptors in insulin-sensitive tissues and enhance glucose metabolism.
Cocoa also has been studied for its mood-elevating effects and positive influence on cognition.
So, when deciding which type of chocolate to purchase, go for the higher-percent cocoa products, preferably above 75 percent. This tells us that there is more actual cocoa than added cream or sugar. Milk chocolate contains 10 percent or more cocoa, while semi-sweet chocolate contains 35 percent or more. Cocoa does have a bitter taste, so you may want to start at around 60 percent cocoa and work your way up. It is recommended to have only about one ounce (or 28 grams) of a cocoa product per day to derive the benefits.
A great way to enjoy more cocoa in your next hot chocolate can be to combine one tablespoon unsweetened baking cocoa with one cup low-fat dairy or nondairy milk and add a packet of stevia.