Here it comes again. We haven’t even recovered from the holiday candy feeding frenzy that started with Halloween and went straight through Christmas, and already we’re inundated with even more candy leading up to Valentine’s Day and Easter. Even the most iron-willed among us, who are navigating our way through our New Year’s resolutions to eat better, can hardly resist the sugar-crusted marshmallows, and milk chocolates coated in red and pink candy shells. It’s as if those heart-shaped boxes adorned with flowers and lace, and candy wrapped in eye-catching red foil, were designed to tempt us into submission. Aren’t there any treats lurking among this barrage of refined sugar that can give a sweet tooth a little satisfaction with fewer metabolic consequences?
Consider dark chocolate! It’s not exactly a superfood, but it does have a few things going for it. After all, chocolate’s botanical classification is Theobroma cacao, with “Theobroma” meaning “food of the gods.” So, there’s got to be something good about it!
Think of chocolate as belonging to the same category as red wine: a sensible indulgence that can actually be good for us—consumed in moderation, of course. Like red wine, cocoa contains polyphenols that may be beneficial for cardiovascular health and for supporting a healthy inflammatory response. In fact, cocoa contains some of the same catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins present in antioxidant-rich, darkly colored berries, as well as in green tea and red apples.
The content of polyphenols in chocolate products depends on how much of the non-fat cocoa solids are in the product. Non-fat cocoa solids account for the polyphenol “storage area” of cocoa. Cocoa powder has the highest polyphenol content (72%-87%), followed by baking chocolate (45%-49%), dark chocolate (20%-30%), semi-sweet (15%-19%), and milk chocolate (5%-7%). Darker chocolates not only have higher amounts of beneficial polyphenols than semi-sweet and milk, but in general, they also have less sugar, because the higher the percentage of cocoa, the lower the sugar content as well.
When it comes to cocoa powder, recipes sometimes specify “natural” or “Dutched” cocoa. Dutching involves reducing the acidity and somewhat harsh flavors cocoa may have. (Natural cocoa is slightly acidic, while Dutched cocoa is closer to a neutral pH.) The success of the recipe depends on the type of cocoa used (mostly due to how the two cocoas interact with leaveners), but it’s important to note that the Dutching process reduces the polyphenol content of cocoa.
Regular consumption of natural cocoa has been linked to the support of healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Cocoa polyphenols may also exert protective effects upon the LDL particles that carry cholesterol throughout the bloodstream. The reduction in blood pressure may be due to cocoa’s influence on activating a compound called nitric oxide synthase, which creates nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps to relax blood vessels and this allows blood to flow through more easily. And let’s not forget—the enjoyment we get from an occasional square of good quality chocolate might help us relax, too!
Aside from the polyphenols and antioxidants cocoa provides, cocoa is also a rich source of fat. However, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the predominant fatty acid in cocoa butter—a saturated fat called stearic acid—has a neutral effect on blood lipids. (This means it does not adversely affect the ratio of HDL to LDL or total cholesterol.) And the second-most predominant fatty acid in cocoa butter is monounsaturated oleic acid—the same one believed to be responsible for olive oil’s heart-healthy status. So, compared to inexpensive chocolates loaded with the trans fats in partially-hydrogenated soy and cottonseed oils, good quality dark chocolate contains fats that may actually be good for us.
For a luscious cold weather treat, and something great for curling up near a fireplace, consider a mug of homemade hot cocoa. Made with natural, unsweetened cocoa powder, whole milk, and stevia, xylitol or erythritol to sweeten, this is something sure to beat the winter blues without spiking blood sugar too much. (Those who are dairy intolerant can use almond or rice milk.) For a thicker and extra-luxurious texture—and an even bigger nutritional boost—use coconut milk. Opt for full-fat coconut milk, rather than “lite,” since the beneficial portion of coconut (aside from its high fiber content) is found in the fat. It’s true! Two of the fatty acids in coconut—lauric and capric acids—are known to be antimicrobial, and the medium-chain triglycerides that predominate in coconuts are metabolized into a special type of molecule called ketones, which are beneficial for memory and cognitive function, and for supporting overall neurological health.
For a spicy Mexican-style cocoa, add a pinch of cinnamon and cayenne pepper, both of which contribute health-promoting qualities of their own. Cinnamon may be beneficial for moderating blood sugar, while cayenne pepper is a natural pain reliever, it helps support a healthy inflammatory response, and its warming effect in the body may be beneficial in supporting proper weight management.
From a nutritional standpoint, dark chocolate may not be equivalent to a grass-fed steak and a pile of steamed broccoli, but the Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s leading medical centers agrees: it beats the pants off marshmallows and candy hearts!
This isn’t a license for us to eat endless amount of chocolate, so when we want to indulge, we should treat ourselves to the good stuff! Here are some recipe ideas for indulging a chocolate craving sensibly:
For more chocolate recipes—many of which are low-carb, gluten-free, and/or dairy free, visit the chocolate recipes on dessertstalker.com.