Is chocolate actually healthy? The buzz around chocolate these days is focused on flavonoids and trace minerals, some of the molecules that make cacao a so-called “super food.” But do you know what those things are, and more importantly, why they matter?
5 Reasons to Eat More Quality Chocolate
Chocolate is good for us because it makes us happy on a basic, chemical level. Studies have proven this time & time again, but no, the Hershey’s and Cadbury’s bars that are half sugar don’t count. But a positive brain response is not the only reason to grab a quality chocolate bar for your post-meal bliss.
- Small amounts of quality chocolate fight the aging process. Cacao, the main ingredient in dark chocolate, is a plant. As such, it naturally contains a class of plant-derived antioxidants called flavanoids. Flavanols and polyphenols are two types of flavonoids found in chocolate— as well as red wine and green tea— which fight aging at a cellular level.
- When chosen discerningly, chocolate raises people out of poverty. Millions of cacao farmers around the world depend upon consistent income from cacao. To combat the poverty built into the system, many chocolate makers create supportive direct relationships with farmers & their farms, raising prices and quality.
- Cacao trees help to maintain biodiversity on plantations. Increased diversity helps cacao thrive, improving the quality of cacao grown— and therefore the chocolate made— around the world. With various crops ready for market at different times, farmers can maintain consistent income, making it more likely that they will harvest cacao only when it is ripe.
- The fat in cacao is good for you, in moderation. Cocoa butter, as this fat is called, is mostly made up of four types of fatty acids whose combined power has been shown to have an overall neutral effect on the heart. However, chocolate itself is still high in calories.
- Sustainable chocolate teaches you about other cultures. Cacao is now grown on farms in Taiwan and the US, Uganda and Cuba, with industry-wide plans under way to continue sustainably expanding growing regions. Knowing where the ingredients come from and how chocolate is made is the first step towards understanding our global interdependence, and how it affects other cultures.
Cacao on a Chemical Level
Understanding cacao and chocolate on a chemical level is so complex that we still don’t have the whole picture. Scientists have found hundreds of substances in cacao which contribute to the unique flavor notes and health benefits attributed to cacao. Many of these health benefits are due to the fact that cacao is a plant, grown in the tropical rain forests of the Americas for millennia. It would take hours to provide a thorough overview of the chemistry, so here we stick to the basics.
Flavonoids— in the form of flavanols and polyphenols, among others— are antioxidants present in chocolate, good for us because they have been shown to slow the damaging effects which oxygen can have upon our cells. Think of a slice of apple left out in the open air for an hour; that’s similar to what’s slowly happening to our cells. Trace minerals which your body needs to function, such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, are also present in cacao. Small amounts of caffeine and larger amounts of theobromine, a chemical closely related to caffeine and with similar effects, account for the energizing properties associated with chocolate.
Ten distinct varietals of cacao are currently known to exist, but they are often referred to as criollo, trinitario, forastero, and nacional. Each varietal of cacao carries a distinct nutritional potential, thanks to genetic variation, growing location, and amount of sunlight, among others. For reference, cacao is generally composed of about half fat, in turn made up of stearic, palmitic, linoleic, and oleic fatty acids. But even the exact percentage of fat, and the proportions of these saturated & unsaturated fats, varies between varietals. Distance from the equator plays a huge role. But how much of these nutrients remain intact once the cacao becomes chocolate depends on its processing on the farm & in the chocolate factory.
Other Ingredients in Chocolate
Once cacao arrives in the hands of a chocolate maker, it is generally in the form of raw cacao beans. These beans are roasted, and the shells removed. Roasting at a lower temperature over a longer period of time can preserve more of cacao’s nutrients. However, this tends to preserve the uniqueness of the beans’ flavor, leading to inconsistent flavor in products, something which chocolate manufacturers don’t value. Additionally, roasting at higher temperatures brings out a more “chocolatey” flavor. As does dutch processing, a common way to standardize flavor.
To “dutch process” cacao or cocoa powder is to alkalize the acidic cacao. This neutralizes pH and heightens the traditional cocoa flavor, while lowering bio-availability of nutrients. Milk proteins are also believed to bind themselves to the nutrients in cacao and make them less bio-available, albeit with less impact compared to dutching. A modern approach to this issue is the use of alternative fat sources, which must be powdered in order to maintain low moisture in chocolate. Milk traditionally dulls the bitterness and astringency, as well as the more positive flavors, found in cocoa. Some cheap replacements for cocoa butter are PGPR, and palm and vegetable oils. But some alternatives rising in popularity are coconut milk powder and heavy cream powder. It is still unknown how these milk substitutes affect chocolate on a chemical level, but the flavor results seem positive.
Sugar is the most common addition to cocoa in order to create chocolate, and it’s often seen as the most agreeable. The white powder satisfies our sweet expectations, allowing dark chocolate lovers to focus on the unique flavors inherent in a chocolate. But beyond this, it spikes blood sugar, causes weight gain, and coerces you into eating more in one sitting. Alternative sugars are here and they are loud & proud, primarily in terms of flavor. Raw cane sugar and coconut sugar are the more nutrient-dense, but flavorful options. Alternative sweeteners stevia, maltitol, and xylitol carry their own downsides, the most obvious being the loss of sugar’s bulk. Each option creates a different chocolate experience, and it’s your responsibility not to outsource your health in hopes of a quick fix.
Choosing Chocolate for the Body & Soul
Every chocolate bar is a promise to you, the consumer. Some makers are better at following through on that promise while sourcing ingredients, crafting bars, and marketing products. But seeing through the noise can be tough. Transparency in the value chain must be offered in order to bring better chocolate and more global equality to the table. Which chocolates on the current market are best for your health is even tougher to say. Just like a bottle of beer from the supermarket doesn’t say what varieties of hops or grains were used or how long everything was fermented, ect., your bar of chocolate won’t say everything. And to say which bar is unequivocally most healthy, you need to know everything.
Luckily there are some clues that can tell you which chocolates are on the healthier end of the spectrum, starting with the quality of the cacao. Look for “single origin” and “craft chocolate,” and don’t be intimidated by higher percentages or price tags. You’re finally paying for cacao rather than sugar. Lower roast profiles and cacao of the criollo or trinitario varieties will result in more nutritional value and better flavor. Try picking a dark chocolate, or a high percentage milk chocolate without dairy.
You don’t have to add so-called super foods to chocolate to make it healthy. We just learned that cacao is inherently healthy, but the processes it often undergoes & the ingredients added are often not. However, your chocolate habit is not about to disappear. So form a relationship with a chocolate brand. Get to know their best practices and what makes their chocolate unique and worthy of your purchasing power. Remember that where you spend your money makes a difference. Positive reinforcement of positive practices will lead to more quality chocolate and more satisfaction on every front.
My advice? Always eat with intention.
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