It may come as a surprise, but chocolate isn’t something I tell my clients to shy away from. While it can get a bad rap as an overly-processed, too-sweet junk food, it can be a rich source of antioxidants and other nutrients when it’s done right. Bittersweet dark chocolate, made from only a few ingredients, has a number of health benefits including:
· Lowered risk of heart disease and stroke
· Improved cognition and brain health
· Stress relief and mood control
· Improved gut health
· Stronger immunity
· Possible diabetes prevention
A Nutritional Powerhouse
What makes high-quality dark chocolate such a superfood? The key is in its essential ingredient, cocoa beans, which are rich in flavanols, a specific type of flavonoid linked to heart and brain health. They’re also rich in anandamide, a “happy” hormone your body produces after exercise; and theobromine, which supports cognition and boosts energy like caffeine but without the crash. They’re also a good source of iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, phosphorous, and fiber.
To make chocolate, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, and roasted, thereby turning them into nibs. Nibs are then ground into powder, also known as chocolate liquor, and separated from the fat, or cocoa butter. It’s then mixed with more cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and/or milk products. The healthiest chocolate, however, is dark, has few ingredients, and limited sugar. There is also evidence to suggest that milk or milk powder (found even in some dark chocolate brands!) may bind to antioxidants and prevent their full absorption, so it’s important to be dairy-aware.
Tips for Buying Quality Dark Chocolate
When choosing dark chocolate for its health benefits, there are several factors you should keep in mind in order to buy the best, most sustainable, and ethical product:
· Look for a bar that’s 70 percent cacao or more. The higher that number, the more bitter the chocolate will be. However, it will contain more health-boosting flavanols and less sugar.
· Scan the ingredients list and choose a bar with as few ingredients as possible. Look for options that list chocolate liquor or cocoa as the first ingredient with sugar as the last. Sugar should be four grams or less per serving.
· Try to buy ethical, sustainable chocolate. Cocoa beans come from the rainforest and harvesting it without regard for the environment can be ecologically devastating. Look for chocolate with certifications from Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or UTZ, all of which are third-party organizations who are actively improving the industry.
A Note on Cocoa and Cacao Powders
The cocoa powder on your baking shelf and the increasingly popular cacao powder aren’t necessarily all that different, but a few key differences can vary their health benefits. Both are derived from the same process, but the beans in cocoa powder are roasted at high temperatures while the beans in cacao powder are roasted at lower temperatures. Unlike cacao powder, cocoa powder may also contain sugar and/or milk products, so be sure to read your labels. Also be sure to avoid Dutch-processed cocoa powders which have been treated with alkali to improve flavor and appearance, as this significantly lowers their flavanol content.
How to Chocolate? Let Me Count the Ways…
Although quality chocolate has numerous health benefits, it should still be enjoyed in moderation—just one or two squares is enough to benefit you without leading to weight gain. But, if you find that you can’t not eat a whole chocolate bar in one sitting, or if chocolate bars simply aren’t your thing, there are other ways to get your chocolate fix. Consider mixing cocoa or cacao powder into your morning smoothie, chia pudding, or yogurt. Add it to chili for a deeper flavor, or dust it over a small serving of your favorite fruit for a decadent treat. Give naturally low-sugar cacao nibs a try by sprinkling them into a smoothie bowl, onto oatmeal, or blend them into homemade nut butter.