It’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.
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."
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 Type||% Cacao*||% Sugar|
|Unsweetened or baking||
|Semisweet or Bittersweet||
at least 35
(at least 12% total milk ingredients )
at least 10
at least 50
* 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
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.
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