The month of December is the time of year when Canadians will eat more chocolate than in any other month. It is perhaps also a good time to ask whether you should eat all that chocolate free of guilt or whether you should resist your cravings of this most craved of all foods.
To answer this question, we need to examine the key ingredient in chocolate from which it is made, namely, cocoa beans.
The cocoa flavonoids
Cocoa beans in their natural unprocessed state contain super nutrients called flavonoids. These flavonoids have antioxidant, anti-clotting, and anti-inflammatory properties that help protect against cardiovascular disease. The cocoa flavonoids can also lower blood pressure by stimulating the production of nitric oxide, which helps relax and dilate arteries. They can also help prevent atherosclerosis—the build-up of fatty plaque deposits in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes—by preventing oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Problems arise when chocolate companies try to capture the goodness of cocoa beans in a bar of chocolate. For, cocoa flavonoids are bitter; so you can’t have the health benefits of cocoa beans and not have its bitterness too. Most chocolate is manufactured in such a way as to reduce bitterness by discarding cocoa flavonoids. Milk chocolate, white chocolate, and plain chocolate, which contain little or no cocoa flavonoids, therefore have to be classified as junk foods—confectioneries with little nutritional benefit.
But what about dark chocolate? Does it not contain all the goodness of cocoa flavonoids? To answer this satisfactorily you need to know first a little bit more about the chocolate manufacturing process.
There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip
Before the cocoa beans become chocolate, the cocoa pods have to be harvested from the cacao tree, and the cocoa beans fermented, roasted and then ground into a creamy paste called chocolate liquor. The paste consists of roughly equal portions of cocoa butter and cocoa solids (cocoa powder). The flavonoids reside in cocoa solids. It would seem then that the more cocoa solids your chocolate bar contains—the darker and bitterer it is—the more flavonoids it should contain and therefore more healthful it should be.
The problem is that the amount of flavonoids in chocolate also depends on the type of beans used, the length of the fermentation process, the roasting temperature, and whether it was Dutch- or alkali-processed to reduce bitterness. This means that a bar containing 60 percent cocoa solids may still contain very little flavonoids. And even experts have difficulty evaluating manufacturers’ flavonoids data.
All chocolate, even dark chocolate, is high in calories and sugar and should be thought of as a treat, not a superfood. To derive the benefits of cocoa flavonoids, look for a chocolate bar that has at least 60 percent cocoa solids. If you must have your chocolate daily, limit serving size to 30 gm. Or stir natural cocoa powder that’s not Dutch processed in a glass of warm milk to make delicious hot chocolate.
If you dislike the taste of bitter chocolate, you can take solace in the fact that chocolate flavonoids are not unique in the kinds of health benefits they provide; you can derive the same benefits, and more, from fruits, vegetables, green tea and grape juice.