Is there such a thing as healthy chocolate?
If you’re a chocoholic, you know chocolate is one of the most popular flavors and foods, from candy like chocolate bars to desserts like cakes, brownies and cookies, beverages like chocolate milk and hot chocolate, flavoring for nutritional drinks and the list goes on.
Chocolate is often a part of our most important events and holidays. Could you imagine Christmas, Valentine’s Day or even a birthday celebration without chocolate? It’s often given as gifts and has great symbolism, like “I love you” or “I’m sorry.” Right?
Chocolate has a celebrated history, consumed even as far back as 2,000 B.C., according to Marshfield Clinic Health System Dietitian Chrisanne Urban, “which is a long time!” she said. It originated in Central America, thanks to the Mayans, and its popularity grew from there.
Chocolate, Urban said, is plant-based and made from cocoa beans. It has four main ingredients – cocoa, sugar, fat and milk. Then there are three types of chocolate – milk, dark and white. What varies most is the amount of cocoa:
- Dark chocolate is 50-90 percent cocoa and amounts of sugar and fat vary.
- Milk chocolate is 10-50 percent cocoa and has varied amounts of sugar, fat and milk.
- There is no cocoa in white chocolate so it’s just sugar, fat and milk.
So, back to the question
Dark chocolate, she said, is now described as healthy, or at least healthier, because it’s made mostly of cocoa which contains flavonoids also found in fruits, vegetables, tea red wine and beer. Some flavonoids have positive health benefits – anti-viral, anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antioxidant. These antioxidants may help protect against diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes.
Urban urges caution with how much you consume. Even though dark chocolate may appear healthier it’s still prudent to watch intake since it’s also high in calories.
“You can’t say ‘I can eat all the dark chocolate I want’ since too many calories of anything leads to weight gain,” she said. “Also, it’s not the most yummy thing to eat since it has a bitter taste. I prefer a truffle vs. dark chocolate because it’s got more milk and fat in it! The more fat and sugar, you increase calories and benefits go down.”
What should you look for?
When buying chocolate, Urban suggests looking for greater than 70 percent cocoa on the label and that it’s the first listed ingredient.
Avoid products with artificial flavors and no alkali process, called dutching, which takes out flavenols. It may reduce the bitter taste but you lose the benefits.
Also, dark chocolate can be preserved for up to two years if it’s stored in a cool dry place, at 65-70 degrees in a sealed container, but not in the refrigerator. If not stored correctly “blooming” occurs, when moisture is introduced causing sugar to come to the surface. This turns chocolate white. Melt the chocolate to remove blooming.
Treats to consider
Tips for using cocoa as a healthy treat:
- Take 1-2 tablespoons of cocoa, a frozen banana and blend together for a smoothie.
- Melt several pieces of dark chocolate in a microwave or on the stove, stir and pour over oatmeal or fruit.
- Dip fruit in dark chocolate for a combination of bitter and sweet.