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The Sweet Benefits of Chocolate

Fancy ChocolatesIt’s February and the chocolate treats are plentiful. Stories touting the health benefits of chocolate – including fighting cancer – have helped spawn a wide variety of sweets, from chocolate bacon bars and bite-sized candies to chocolate gum and pasta.

Whatever your choice of chocolate indulgence, the health benefits of chocolate depend upon the type of chocolate you choose – and how much.

The Healthy Insides

Most of the health benefits touted with dark chocolate relate to cardiovascular disease. Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. When comparing the antioxidant content of foods gram for gram, cocoa often ranks among the highest. And research shows that consuming chocolate increases the antioxidants in our blood.

A steady stream of population and lab studies link eating chocolate in moderation with heart health, including improving blood vessel function and lowering blood pressure.

Given chocolate’s rich supply of flavonoids, researchers have also investigated whether it may play a role in cancer prevention. The studies in cancer prevention are still emerging. A recent review of studies on the cancer protective properties of cocoa concluded that the evidence is limited but suggestive. More rigorous studies should be conducted on chocolate's cancer protective role, concluded the author, because it provides "strong antioxidant effects in combination with a pleasurable eating experience."

From Cacao to Cocoa

All chocolate products begin with the cacao (pronounced kuh-KOW) bean. First, the cacao bean is roasted and ground into a thick chocolate liquor (non-alcoholic). This liquor, hardened, is unsweetened chocolate. When pressure is added to the liquor, it pushes out the bean’s fat, called cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is made by drying and sifting the remaining material from the liquor.

Mix up some chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and milk, and the commercial chocolate treat emerges. In general, the higher the percentage of cacao, the darker the chocolate and the more intense the flavor. And as cacao content goes up, there’s less room for sugar. A bar labeled 70% chocolate is 70 percent cocoa plus cocoa butter and 30 percent sugar. (See chart.)

White chocolate only contains the butter but not any chocolate liquor. Technically it’s not even chocolate. (It gets its name because it contains cocoa butter.)

Chocolate by the Percents
Chocolate Type % Cacao* % Sugar
Unsweetened or baking
almost 100
none
Semisweet or Bittersweet
at least 35
10-50
Milk
(at least 12% total milk ingredients )
at least 10
at least 50
Sweet
15-50
50-60
Dark**
commonly 45-80

* As defined by the U.S. Standards of Identity; A higher percentage does not imply a better chocolate; you’ll have to taste test to find your favorite.
** Not defined by U.S. Standards

Pick Your Pleasure

Of course, there are plenty of ways to get the same healthful plant compounds contained in chocolate, such as by eating fruits and vegetables. And fruits and vegetables can also offer "a pleasurable eating experience." But for chocolate lovers, you can enjoy it all.

Whether it’s dark or milk, aim for the plain chocolates without all the nougat and fillings. Just make sure to look at the calories and serving size. The health benefits of chocolate are not an excuse to overindulge. If you incorporate about 1 ounce of chocolate (about 135 calories) into a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, you’ll be savoring a wide variety of delicious treats – and plenty of health promoting phytochemicals.

Chocolate Fun Facts

  • The Mayans are believed to have discovered drinking chocolate more than 2,000 years ago; writings refer to cacao as the "food of the gods."
  • For the Mayans and the Aztecs, cocoa beans were used as a form of currency: An Aztec document stated the value of a tomato as 1 cacao bean; a turkey hen was worth 100.
  • The explorer Cortez first combined cocoa with sugar and other spices to create a version of today’s hot chocolate. Only royalty and the extremely wealthy could afford this drink.
  • The first modern chocolate bar is credited to an English company in the mid-1800s.
  • In the U.S., the first chocolate factory began in the late 1700s in New England.
  • Today, Americans consume about 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year, that’s almost half of the world's consumption.
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