Go Ahead, Chocoholics, a Little Chocolate is Good for You
By Shirley Perryman, MS, RD
Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist
Colorado State University Extension
February 11, 2012
FORT COLLINS - February is American Heart Month and is a month often celebrated with chocolate. The good news for chocoholics is that studies continue to show a link between chocolate and heart health. Several study reviews concluded that eating dark chocolate lowers the risk of heart disease (but this doesn’t mean you can substitute chocolate for exercise and other healthy lifestyle factors).
Compounds in cocoa beans -- called alkaloids, theobromines and antioxidant flavonoids-- are responsible for chocolate’s health benefits.
These heart-healthy compounds are the same ones found in red wine, grape juice and tea, for example. They have anti-inflammatory properties, which provide protection against blood clots, improve cholesterol levels and help relax blood vessels, potentially lowering blood pressure.
But all chocolate is not equally beneficial. Some companies remove all or some of these compounds because they taste bitter. Theobromine also is a cardio-stimulant; while the level of this compound in dark chocolates is safe for human consumption, it is toxic to animals.
While health benefits exist for chocolate, it’s no surprise that indulging in chocolate isn’t the same as munching on carrot sticks, but Americans love chocolate and store shelves are laden with choices tempting all palettes.
Cocoa beans are initially fermented to develop the familiar chocolate flavor and aroma. After fermentation, the beans are roasted and crushed to a paste. Ingredients like milk, vanilla, sugar and cocoa butter are added to produce chocolate. A popular food trend is to carefully select cocoa beans and add unique flavorings including a variety of spicy chilies, herbs and sea salt.
If you love the taste but also want the health benefits of chocolate know what to look for on labels.
These terms may be helpful as you examine your choices:
- Cocoa or cacao is expressed as a percentage on labels and refers to the total amount of cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and cocoa powder.
- Chocolate liquor is not a liquid and, surprisingly, is not alcohol. It is ground cocoa bean nibs and may be listed as unsweetened cocoa.
- Cocoa butter is naturally present and is responsible for the melt-in-your mouth quality of some chocolates, but despite the word “butter” in its name, it is not a dairy component. Cocoa butter is fat from the cocoa bean.
- White chocolate is a blend of cocoa butter, sugar and flavoring. It does not contribute to known health benefits and is not labeled as “chocolate” by the Food and Drug Administration since it contains no cocoa solids.
- Unsweetened baking chocolate is 100 percent cocoa without added sugar. It is too bitter for eating.
- Dark chocolate contains various amounts of cocoa solids plus cocoa butter, sugar and other flavorings. Bittersweet chocolate typically contains less sugar than semi-sweet chocolate. The amount of sugar varies among brands.
- Milk chocolate is a combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and flavoring plus milk solids.
This good health news doesn’t give you license to enjoy chocolate to your heart’s content. As with many treats, it should be enjoyed in moderation. Scientists don’t yet know how much chocolate is the most healthful amount of chocolate to include in your diet. Some have suggested limiting chocolate to an ounce or two a day.
Use these guidelines to make the heart healthiest choices.
- Dark chocolate has the most health beneficial compounds. The darker the chocolate—shown by a higher percent of cocoa solids -- the lower the sugar content and the higher the antioxidant content, which equals potentially more health benefits. Look for flavonoid content on the label by percent cocoa. When checking labels compare options within the same brand because processors do not use standardized recipes.
- Dutch processed cocoa has a mild chocolate flavor. It has been neutralized to lower the acidity found in chocolate, but this process also destroys the healthy antioxidants. Naturally processed, unsweetened cocoa is a healthier choice.
- Some studies suggest that milk added to chocolate prevents the body from absorbing beneficial flavonoids.
In spite of the melting effect of cocoa butter, it won’t melt away any extra pounds. If you indulge in eating chocolate, swap extra calories from soda and other calorie-laden snacks and sweets for chocolate treats. And, though research continues to show dark chocolate’s health benefits, it can’t make up for unhealthy eating habits. Choose wisely and you could help your heart; then savor every bite.
For more information, contact your local Colorado State University Extension office.
Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014