Healthy Dark Chocolate

Treating yourself regularly to a small amount of dark chocolate is definitely a healthy habit I can get behind!  Mounting research on chocolate continues to justify the hype it’s received over the past several years.  However, in order to optimize it’s awesome health benefits, there are a few guidelines to follow.

Compounds called flavonoids in chocolate seem to increase blood flow and help our arteries stay flexible.  These flavonoids have anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties that work in a similar way to aspirin, by making our blood platelets less likely to stick together and clot, improving circulation to our brain, heart, skin and all throughout the body.

Regular chocolate eaters may experience a host of benefits for their hearts, including lower blood pressure, lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and less hardening of the arteries.  Studies show that flavonols may also relax blood vessels, offering a potentially reduced risk for heart attack or stroke.  The good news doesn’t stop there—the flavonoids in cocoa have inflammation-fighting properties, making dark chocolate especially heart-healthy and further reducing cardiovascular risk.

Dark chocolate has a low glycemic index (similar to that of oatmeal) so that blood sugar levels remain steady, helping to avoid those sugar spikes that get us eating out of control and tired.  Some studies have shown decreased insulin resistance with regular consumption.  Dark chocolate contains fiber that helps fill you up, and may even reduce food cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.

Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids and full of antioxidant activity (even more than kale and spinach), and may also have anti-cancer properties that help reduce the cell damage that encourages tumor growth.  Dark chocolate may even protect our skin, reduce coughing, boost our moods and help us tolerate stress more easily, as well as helping us to concentrate, to perform tasks more effectively, and to feel more awake and alert.  Just knowing that dark chocolate eaten regularly (in small amounts) has so many health benefits makes me feel happy and satisfied!

The more chocolate is processed (fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost.  Most commercial chocolates are highly processed, and even some dark chocolates—which we would assume have the highest levels of flavonoids due to a high percentage of cocoa—may not have as much as we might think, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed.  The best choices are dark chocolate over milk chocolate (especially milk chocolate loaded with extra fats and sugars) and natural unsweetened cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing (treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity).  The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates.  White chocolate doesn’t have any cocoa in it and thus no flavonoids, and it’s loaded with even more fat and sugar.

Until the amount of flavanoids is included on labels, the best way to judge dark chocolate is from the percentage of cocoa that it contains.  Aim for 70% or higher cocoa for the greatest amount of disease-fighting flavonoids.  Typically, the more bitter the chocolate, the more flavonoid-rich cocoa it has.  Milk chocolate has very minimal benefit and has much more sugar and fat than dark chocolate.  Cheaper chocolates usually don’t have high-quality cocoa butter and contain added hydrogenated oils, extra sugar, and other unnecessary ingredients to make it taste better.  Avoid chocolates that have sugar listed as the first ingredient.

Although a little dark chocolate is good, more isn’t better.  Chocolate has plenty of calories—yes, even dark chocolate.  Along with the healthy flavonoids, 50 grams of dark chocolate has about 252 calories, and half of those calories are from fat.  We can switch out other less-healthy snacks and sweets for dark chocolate. Stick with about a square (or two) a day of dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa or more.  Remember that dark chocolate is still high in calories, fat, and sugar.  If a square seem too small, just remember, you can eat chocolate again tomorrow!

Cocoa powder, on the other hand, does not include the extra fat and sugar, so use it freely when cooking and baking.  This makes it easier for you to control the amount of sugar and fat going into the food.  In fact, you can add cocoa to savory foods like your favorite chili, stew and sauces.  Try this vegetarian Sweet Potato Pumpkin Chili.  The canned pumpkin gives this chili more body and umami, and the cocoa adds another dimension to the taste, while they both boost the nutrition content.  Try these Double Chocolate Muffins made with black beans (no need to mention the beans until people rave) and applesauce.  These single-serving Warm Chocolate Soufflés will impress any dinner guest.  For a really special holiday treat to eat and to give as gifts, make these healthy and easy  Dark Chocolate Truffles using coconut oil instead of heavy cream.  Healthy fat and healthy cocoa for a healthy holiday!  Thank you, Martha Stewart!

Celebrate December’s (2012) Healthy Challenge and enjoy a square of dark chocolate (containing 70% or higher cocoa) regularly, and use cocoa powder in your cooking and baking.  One square a day may keep the doctor away!