Dark Chocolate Healthy Benefits
Heart-healthy chocolate–it’s not a myth, but processing and added ingredients can turn the results of cacao production into a sort of metabolic poison, adding to the obesity and diabetes epidemic in developed countries. Cacao is commercially grown in third world countries, and the search for healthy ingredients begins there.
The “Food of Mayan Kings” is Bitter
The theobroma cacao plant produces fruit that bears cacao beans, from which cocoa and chocolate are manufactured. Raw cacao beans are extremely bitter–most people would spit them out quickly. But the bitter-tasting substance contains powerful antioxidants such as resveratrol, polyphenols, and procyanidins that increase the lifespan of human cells, lower serum cholesterol, improve blood vessel elasticity, normalize blood pressure, inhibit cancer cell proliferation, boost energy and immune reactions and promote heart health. When the bitter taste is processed out of the beans, however, much of the benefits are lost.
Processing Makes a Difference
The cacao tree has the ability to absorb lead from soil and store it in the beans. Eating an occasional piece of chocolate is not going to increase the risk of lead poisoning, but if chocolate consumption is a daily habit, it is worth determining if the source of the cocoa used to make the product is lead-free.
Free Trade certification on the label verifies that responsible environmental and social practices were followed during production. Consistently higher nutritional value at a fair price is the result.
Raw organic cacao is healthy. Adding milk interferes with antioxidant absorption. Sweeteners may be necessary but avoid high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners in favor of natural sugar, maple syrup, and stevia. Added coconut or almonds increases variety, texture, and nutrients. Some so-called “healthy chocolates” have other added ingredients. Try to avoid these: trans fat, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and preservatives or stabilizers.
The benefits of healthy chocolate are obtained with small amounts. An Italian study determined that 6.7 grams a day (about four squares or less than half a bar) of chocolate that is at least 70% cacao conveys the most benefits.
Don’t Forget Other Healthy Foods
The potent anti-aging substance in cacao, resveratrol, is also found in grapes, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries, and peanuts. Broccoli, spinach, kale, and many other raw vegetables and fruits also contain antioxidant compounds and benefits attributed to chocolate.
Eating moderate amounts of minimally processed chocolate has health benefits. By purchasing Fair Trade products and eating other antioxidant-rich foods, consumers are most likely to improve their own health as well as the environment.