Chocolate Health Benefits – What’s Not to Love!

“‘Tis the season” for festivities and delicious treats — and as you can see from my list of recipes, I am a BIG fan of chocolate … just more focused recently on developing chocolate recipes that are lower in sugar, gluten-free, and still delicious.

Besides its satisfying flavor and creamy texture, chocolate has been associated with a number of health benefits. These health benefits include protecting body tissues by increasing antioxidant activity, and thus reducing tissue damage associated with inflammation and pain. Chocolate has also been reported to decrease the risk of heart disease risk and insulin resistance (adult-onset diabetes), as well as improve mood & mental functioning. So, what’s not to love about chocolate!

Chocolate provides a number of protective compounds, including flavonoids, methylxanthines (caffeine, theobromine), and minerals like magnesium. Flavonoids are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Along with dark chocolate, flavonoids are also found in red wine and plant foods with BIG color and STRONG flavor (including berries, citrus, cruciferous vegetables [like broccoli, kale], onions, and tea). The caffeine and theobromine in chocolate help to elevate mood, mental alertness, and energy. One study of older men even noted that those preferring chocolate over other types of candy reported less loneliness, more happiness, and more plans for the future.

Along with dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, dark chocolate is an excellent source of magnesium. Magnesium is important for normal heart rhythm and rate, and low magnesium intakes are associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance (adult-onset diabetes). Dietary magnesium intake is inadequate in the US, particularly among adolescent girls (90%), women (56%), and both men and women 71+ years (70-80%).

When it comes to choosing chocolate with the most health benefits, the darker the better – go for at least 70-85% cocoa solids. Darker chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids contains more protective flavonoids and magnesium, as well as less sugar. Processing reduces the health benefits of chocolate. In the case of chocolate, “bitter is better.” Flavonoids provide chocolate’s naturally pungent (bitter) taste. Processing (fermentation, alkalizing [Dutch process], roasting) reduces flavonoid content. Flavonoids also bind to dietary protein reducing bioavailability, so the addition of milk, casein, and soy protein to chocolate reduces the protective properties of chocolate products.

Issues to consider in purchasing chocolate products include caffeine, contaminants, additives, and whether the chocolate is labeled “Fair Trade,” which indicates that cocoa has been produced by workers paid fair wages. Because chocolate contains some caffeine, it may disrupt sleep depending on the amount and time ingested. Chocolate can also be contaminated with lead and cadmium, so moderation is always a useful strategy. In addition, to increase profit margin, some chocolate products have had less expensive ingredients added, including sugars and fats [including PGPR derived from castor beans].

So when it comes to choosing the healthiest chocolate, it’s good to remember that the darker the color and more bitter the flavor means more cocoa solids, and more cocoa solids means more protective flavonoids and magnesium, as well as less sugar. Choosing organic and “Fair Trade” chocolate also helps to support the environment and protect workers. And here’s the “bottom line” – slow down and savor, portions matter, and remember the “80/20” rule – it’s what you do 80% of the time that matters!! And one last thought about chocolate – “if you are going to blow it, blow it with quality stuff,” including Chocolate Cherry Macaroons, Dark Chocolate, Cherry, & Nut Bark, Chocolate Cherry Nut Treats, and Chocolate Black Bean Brownies. Enjoy!

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