Chocolate and Health Benefits?

Hershey’s, Godiva, Cadbury, and Ghirardelli; perhaps the mere mention of these names starts to make you think about one of the sweetest, most delicious desserts on the face of this earth: chocolate. We use chocolate to indulge our sweet tooth, to power us through a bad day, and give it as a kind gesture during holidays and special occasions. With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s no wonder why this sweet treat steals the spotlight. In fact, “more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate will be sold for Valentine's Day.”1 That’s a lot of chocolate! But did you know that there was more to chocolate than just its mouth-watering flavor? That chocolate can actually have medicinal purposes as well?! Let me explain…

Before chocolate can be processed into kisses, bars, and coated on fruit, the key element in all of chocolate production must be harvested: the cocoa bean. Cocoa beans are actually seeds from a fruit known as the cocoa pod. Cocoa pods grow on the cacao trees which are primarily found in Central and South America, Central Africa, and Indonesia.2 The cocoa beans first begin their chocolate journey by being harvested and dried. After this process, they can then be used for one of two purposed: they can be pressed to form cocoa butter and cocoa powder, or the pieces of bean, commonly referred to as nibs, can be ground into a creamy paste known as chocolate liquor. Add some vanilla, sugar, and lecithin to the chocolate liquor, and viola! you have just created chocolate.

Which brings us to the age-old question: why is dark chocolate better than milk chocolate (from a health perspective)? It is because not all cocoa is created equal.2 Cocoa goes through a process called alkalization, or Dutch processing, which helps make the cocoa less bitter tasting (If you have every tried unsweetened chocolate, you will recognize this bitter flavor). Dark chocolate has been less processed than milk chocolate and has a higher percentage of cacao, which is the proportion of the product made from the cocoa bean.2 Therefore, the higher the percentage of cacao, the more health benefits the chocolate has. Chocolate is rich in phytochemicals, particularly flavonoids, which may be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol. Since dark chocolate is less processed than milk chocolate, it retains more of these great flavanols which enables you to reap many of the cocoa’s heart-healthy benefits. So the next time you want to enjoy a piece of chocolate, help your heart and choose dark!

Heather Shasa MS, RD

References:

1 National Confectioner’s Association. Fun Facts About Valentine’s Day. http://www.candyusa.com/FunStuff/FunFactsDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=977

2 Miller, Debra. Chocolate and Health: From Ancient Remedy to Modern Medicine. New Jersey Dietetic Association 2012 Annual Meeting.