“Enjoy your chocolate, as per your doctor’s orders!”
“Enjoy your chocolate, as per your doctor’s orders!”
Yes, chocolate is not only good for you, the latest research suggests that you should eat a little bit of it everyday. Now that is advice that I can easily follow. Yet, do not race down to the supper market and pick up any candy bar you come across. When it comes to the health benefits of chocolate, not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate without a doubt is superior to milk chocolate or white chocolate (which really is not chocolate anyway).
The darker the better
Some people just love milk chocolate, but when it comes to the health benefits, you want to go for a dark chocolate. So what is the difference? For one, dark chocolate has less sugar added, is less processed and contains more cacao (coco bean). Cacao, coco bean or chocolate is a naturally bitter substance, kind of like coffee. Naturally it is not sweet, but it has a pleasant taste. Many foods contain more nutrients in their raw state, before they are processed, like bell peppers. Others have new nutrients added to them when they are processed like turning cabbage into sauerkraut. The same goes for chocolate. Dark chocolate means that it has more natural nutrients left in – it is less processed. Nutritionist Emily Bender also states, “some chocolates are contain high levels of sugars, damaged fats and artificial flavorings.”
According to one study, “depending on harvesting and processing procedures, as much as 90% of the flavonoids can be lost during processing.” (Keen) This is just one example of how processing can severely alter the nutritional value of chocolate. In many health food stores, you can buy unprocessed cacao nibs. They are a very healthy food, rich in anti oxidants and magnesium. Interestingly, many women crave chocolate during their menstrual cycle, but it’s really the magnesium they are craving. Chocolate is one of the richest sources of magnesium and it helps prevent cramping, as it is a natural muscle relaxer. Bender adds that some people recommend “raw cacao that has never been heated enough to damage the enzymes and beneficial constituents.”
In a study conducted in Italy of 4849 people, it was found that 20 grams of cacao every three days was the magic number to help reduce inflammation. (Guiseppe) Other studies have also found that similar amounts were enough to cause beneficial health effects. Now let’s look at why chocolate is so good for you.
Flavonoids and antioxidants
Chocolate, or to be more specific, cacao is “rich in antioxidants and flavonoids,” states nutritionist Bender. Antioxidants help the body clean up damaged cells and help the body keep running smoothly and are cancer preventative and cardio protective. Flavonoids are also found in chocolate and these substances, known collectively as Vitamin P, also perform many protective functions in the body. According to one study, cocoa powder and cocoa extracts were found to exhibit greater antioxidant and flavonoid capacity than foods such as green and black tea, red wine, blueberry, garlic, and strawberry (Keen). Flavonoids and antioxidants are also found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, but many people fail to eat enough of them to enjoy health benefits.
Blood sugar regulation
Amazingly, the authors of a study found that dark chocolate improved insulin resistance and sensitivity and decreased systolic blood pressure (white chocolate had no effect). This is good news for diabetics! This Italian study found that while consuming a typical Italian diet and supplementing it with 100 g of dark chocolate a day, it was enough to experience the benefits (Fraga).
Inflammation has become a buzzword in the health community and has been connected to diseases from autoimmune diseases, gum disease and heart disease. It seems the more inflammation you have, the more likely you are to develop a disease. This is why an Italian study that found that the high concentrations of flavonoids found in dark chocolate has many anti-inflammatory properties. I mentioned this study of 4849 men and women aged 35 and up; their findings suggest that 20 grams of dark chocolate every three days may reduce inflammation (Guiseppe). Chocolate can have a beneficial effect on the inflammatory pathway, on blood pressure, insulin resistance, vascular damage, and oxidative stress. (Selmi) This is also good news for heart health. One study involving 28 healthy volunteers found that their cardiovascular health improved in one week of consuming 700 mg of flavonoids/day provided by dark chocolate. (Hammed)
How to pick the best bar
I love chocolate, and I do not mean I love the sugar in chocolate, I love the bitter sweetness of chocolate itself. I find no pleasure in a Hershey’s bar; I used to, but my preference for chocolate has changed. Many people do not enjoy the flavor of dark chocolate because it is missing the familiar creamy sweetness of milk chocolate. This does not mean that you only have to eat dark chocolate, but if you want to reap the health benefits of chocolate, it has to be dark. If you are used to milk chocolate, you can start of with a chocolate bar that is 45% chocolate and then work your way up. If you are ready to select you dark chocolate bar, here are a few things to look for:
Organic is always going to be better. First off, most organic chocolate is grown in optimum growing conditions. This helps insure that the most nutrients (like the flavonoids and anti oxidants we have been talking about) remain within it. Bender states, “Look for a chocolate that is organic, fair trade, high in cacao content and contains no artificial ingredients or additives.”
- The darker the better
As the various studies state, dark chocolate alone has the health boosting effects. There are various percentages available on the market by many makers. My favorite maker who I like and is available in the UAE is Black and Gold. Markets like Whole Foods offer a staggering array of chocolates that range from plain chocolate to chocolate infused with Mexican cinnamon and chili. Depending on your geographical location, your options will vary. Many companies only sell medicinal quality chocolate products from drinks to the raw coco nibs; personally, I like to opt for the sugar free coco nibs.
However, as with everything, moderation is the key. You do not want to over consume chocolate as it can be very constipating, and that’s the last thing anyone needs.
Over the last 10 years, research has shown that regular consumption of small amounts of dark chocolate can have many health benefits. So enjoy your chocolate, as per your doctor’s orders. Now that’s a tasty recommendation I can follow!
1. Keen, Carl L Roberta R Holt, Patricia I Oteiza, César G Fraga and Harold H Schmitz, Cocoa antioxidants and cardiovascular health.” (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81: 1, 298S-303S, January 2005) http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/81/1/298S
2. Deardorff, Julie, “How to pick healthy chocolate” Chicago Tribune November 10, 2009 http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/features_julieshealthclub/2009/11/how-to-pick-healthy-chocolate.html
- Fraga CG.” Cocoa, diabetes, and hypertension: should we eat more chocolate?” (Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Mar;81(3):541-2.) http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/81/3/541
- Hamed MS, Gambert S, Bliden KP, Bailon O, Singla A, Antonino MJ, Hamed F, Tantry US, Gurbel PA. Dark chocolate effect on platelet activity, C-reactive protein and lipid profile: a pilot study. (South Med J. 2008 Dec;101(12):1203-8.)
5. Selmi C, Cocchi CA, Lanfredini M, Keen CL, Gershwin ME. “Chocolate at heart: the anti-inflammatory impact of cocoa flavanols.” (Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008 Nov;52(11):1340-8.)
6. di Giuseppe, Romina 3, Augusto Di Castelnuovo3, Floriana Centritto3, Francesco Zito3, Amalia De Curtis3, Simona Costanzo3, Branislav Vohnout3, Sabina Sieri4, Vittorio Krogh4, Maria Benedetta Donati3, Giovanni de Gaetano3 and Licia Iacoviello3,* Regular Consumption of Dark Chocolate Is Associated with Low Serum Concentrations of C-Reactive Protein in a Healthy Italian Population (J. Nutr. 138:1939-1945, October 2008) http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/full/138/10/1939