With Valentine’s Day just a few weeks away, shelves in every store will be overflowing with chocolates. Heart-shaped boxes filled with the cocoa-based confections in every imaginable flavor will delight, but also confuse, the buyer looking to impress their beloved. Do you like bacon? Well, you can have it covered in chocolate. Do you have an aversion to eating fruit? That might not be the case once you’ve tried it covered in chocolate. Does your palate favor spicy foods? There are chocolates flavored with chili and other spices.
“I want to try them all,” you say? Whoa, chocoholic. Like anything else that goes in your body, it’s important to know if it’s good for you. Moreover, if you are giving it to someone you care for, do you give them something that you know might be bad for them? Don’t get mad. I’m not saying you can’t have chocolate or give chocolate, but let your brain do its job so your body can do the same.
So, is chocolate healthy? The answer is yes and no.
Chocolate confections are made with cocoa. Cocoa is derived from cacao beans that have been roasted and usually ground into a powder. Cacao is rich in antioxidants, neurotransmitters, and nutrients. Sounds healthy, right? Don’t indulge yet! Roasting the cacao breaks it down and you lose nutrients and antioxidants, and neurotransmitter strength. Adding the heavy fat-laden and sugar ingredients to cocoa to create the sweet bites that make our heads spin and hearts flutter (in the emotional sense) further minimizes the health benefits. But hang in there, all hope is not lost.
Without sugar and butter or cream being added, cocoa alone is bitter. Search online for videos of kids tasting unsweetened cocoa, the ingredient (think baking), and you will find excited kiddos brought to tears when they realize the smell of cocoa does not equate to the taste of the hot cocoa beverage they love. To avoid confusing them, call the sweet beverage by its more accurate common name, hot chocolate.
Where is the hope I promised you? If you opt for chocolates with a higher percentage of cocoa and lower percentage of calorie-heavy fats and sugars—consumed occasionally—you can enjoy chocolate. I once took my team to the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory when it was located in Berkeley. They taught us that the best chocolate has the highest cacao content and its depth of flavor is not buried in sugar and fat. To understand, we did a chocolate tasting, beginning with a cacao nib, then moving through a selection of chocolates, each with lower percentages of cacao.
Like coffee and wine, cacao from different regions of the world has a different flavor palate. We could taste hints of the origin of our chocolate in the higher cacao content pieces. As the sugar and fat increased, it was more difficult to taste the complexity. I might also add that we were instructed that the best way to enjoy chocolate is to take a small piece to your tongue and let it melt in your mouth as you savor it, no chewing. That was the most difficult chocolate consumption experience ever, as I wanted to chew those morsels so they would disappear more quickly, and I could have more. The less fat and sugar, the longer it took to melt. I suppose if we all followed that guideline, we would be able to enjoy chocolate and not take on as many calories from it, as it would take all day to consume one bar.
Health benefits and considerations
I know you don’t really need an excuse, um, I meant to say “reason,” to savor chocolate, but the flavonoids in cocoa—catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins—are beneficial to your heart and brain. A group of Harvard doctors analyzed the results of 24 studies on the effects of cocoa flavonoids on heart risks and found a reduction in blood pressure and unhealthy LDL cholesterol, increase in healthy HDL cholesterol, improved blood flow, and lowered insulin resistance. Published in 2012 in Hypertension, an American Heart Association journal, the results of a study stated:
“Our data seem to support the hypothesis that the regular consumption of cocoa flavanols may be able to improve cognitive performance in MCI adults in a relatively short period of time. Although additional confirmatory studies are warranted, the findings reported herein suggest that the regular dietary inclusion of flavanols could be one element of a dietary approach to the maintaining and improving not only cardiovascular health but also specifically brain health.”
The bottom line is that if you opt for chocolate made with cacao, the higher the concentration of cacao the healthier, but the more bitter your chocolate will be. Averse to bitter? Select dark chocolate with a high cocoa content to still reap some benefit while taking in those tasty empty calories. If for you, anything but milk chocolate is not chocolate, a little now and then will make you happy, and your mental health matters. Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!
Contributing writer Denise Lum is a Health and Fitness Coach raising her family in Alameda. Contact her via [email protected] or FitnessByDsign.com. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Denise-Lum.