Perryman Nutrition Column: Will Dark Chocolate Every Day Keep the Doctor Away?

Is chocolate a guilty treat or a great-tasting healthy indulgence? Do you use chocolate to boost your mood or reserve it for special celebrations? Whatever your reason for choosing chocolate, emerging research is showing there may be some health benefits.

Unsweetened cocoa and dark chocolate appear to be healthier choices than other kinds of chocolate. Blood pressure, cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity have all been shown to profit from the flavonoids in the cocoa bean. Chocolate milk drinkers in one study showed marked improvement in heart health including a boost to the “good” HDL cholesterol. It’s notable that the chocolate milk consumed in this study was made with unsweetened cocoa powder (containing 82 percent cocoa) stirred into skim milk as opposed to the highly processed and sweetened version typically found on supermarket shelves.

Other research suggests eating chocolate makes us feel good – something self-professed chocoholics already know. Chocolate may reduce stress and have other positive psychological effects. Chocolate may be connected to neurotransmitters boosting mood and lowering anxiety. This research is still preliminary, so nutrition experts still don’t recommend eating chocolate for those health benefits, but this research is something chocolate lovers will watch.

Not all chocolate is created equal but consider choosing your chocolate fix based on what we know:

• The higher the cocoa content the greater the health benefits from flavonoids which help protect against aging and some chronic disease conditions. Following unsweetened cocoa powder on the list for percent cocoa is unsweetened baking chocolate and dark chocolate. Studies suggest that eating dark chocolate with 70 percent cocoa improves cardiovascular health. Semisweet chocolate and milk chocolate drop down further on the list for cocoa content.
• White chocolate contains no cocoa — which indicates it contains none of the healthy flavonoids.
• Cocoa butter, the key ingredient in white chocolate, has been shown to primarily contain stearic and oleic acids. On the plus side, cocoa butter doesn’t raise cholesterol. Cocoa butter combined with cocoa powder give that satisfying melt-in-your-mouth experience but makes it a high fat, high calorie food.
• Some chocolate on supermarket shelves has added cocoa flavonoids and other cholesterol-lowering sterols. Choose these if your budget can afford such a treat and you enjoy the flavor. Flavonoids can be obtained from other foods for less money and possibly fewer calories.

Pure chocolate is bitter. The more commonly consumed chocolate is cocoa mixed with sugar and other ingredients. However, we can choose to prepare or purchase healthier chocolate treats with a lower level of sugar. Magnify the benefits of flavonols by:
– Combining dark chocolate with fruit and nuts.
– Dip fresh strawberries into melted dark chocolate.
– Stir together melted dark chocolate with dried blueberries, cherries and nuts and drop spoonfuls onto waxed paper until they solidfy into a berry-cluster treat, or create your own favorite combination for chocolate drops.
– Prepare a dessert platter of red and green grapes, assorted fresh berries and squares of dark chocolate for choices rich in flavonols.
– Bake brownies with unsweetened cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate. Minimize added sugar to the brownies by adding naturally sweet fruit to the recipe.

To add even more antioxidant benefits enjoy your creations with flavonol-rich red wine or a cup of black or green tea.

How much dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder is the potential ticket to good health? None of the studies to date have determined the optimal daily serving. Many health experts are comfortable recommending daily dark chocolate in small amounts—an ounce or two daily—if it’s a food you already enjoy and can afford it in your calorie budget.

As a final word of caution, check the ingredients on the label to see where sugar is listed. The further down the list the better because that indicates a smaller amount of sugar in the product. Weigh the extra calories in chocolate before you spend them … and then enjoy every morsel!