Perryman Nutrition Column: Chocolate is a Healthy Treat

Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.

Is chocolate good for us or not? Nutrition news changes often and the latest information isn’t always to our liking. The good news for those of us who are health conscious and chocoholics is that chocolate is still a healthy choice. Since February is American Heart Month, it’s good news to learn there is a healthy and enjoyable treat for heart health.

Research continues to suggest that chocolate offers health benefits: improved blood flow, decreased blood pressure and lowered risk of blood clots. Even the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee observed the link between dark chocolate and heart health reinforcing this good news. As with all good things, however, there are some caveats to including chocolate in your diet.

• Choose wisely. Flavanol content varies according to the form of chocolate. The higher the percent cocoa in chocolate, the greater the flavanol content. Flavanols are associated with a variety of health benefits including heart health. 
– Natural cocoa contains high levels of flavonols and, because it doesn’t contain cocoa butter, it is an optimal low fat option in cooking and baking. When cocoa is alkalized or Dutched, it lowers the bitterness, darkens the color and lowers the flavanol. 
– White chocolate contains at least 20 percent cocoa butter, some milk solids and sugar, but none of the healthy cocoa flavanols.
– Milk chocolate contains about 7 to 35 percent cocoa.
– Dark chocolate content varies from 30 to 80 percent cocoa. The higher the cocoa percentage, the greater the flavanol content. To maximize health benefits select dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content.

• Moderation is key. The chocolate we enjoy is processed. To make it taste yummy and to balance the natural bitter flavor of cocoa, it has added fat and sugar making it chock full of calories. To preserve your waistline and expand the heart health benefits limit your enjoyment to an ounce a day. Indulging in more than an ounce a day has not been shown to provide any more heart health benefits than a limited portion.

• Prevent ‘bloom.’ If you ever noticed a gray, dusty coating on chocolate, that’s “bloom.” It appears when chocolate is stored in warm or humid conditions. It typically doesn’t affect taste or quality of the chocolate.

“Move over eggs. Bacon just got a new best friend: fudge,” Homer Simpson said.

Have you seen chocolate that is laced with unexpected flavors such as bacon? Some tout the joys of eating this sweet and salty sensation, but if you want something extra in your chocolate, go for the healthier additions like spices or nuts. Or make those chocolates with added sodium or saturated fat an occasional treat and not a dietary mainstay.

Another option in the culinary world is chocolate fortified with antioxidants. The thinking behind these nutraceuticals, or foods fortified with intended health benefits, is that if the phytochemicals naturally present are good, why not pump them up and add more to make them even healthier choices? These fortified chocolate foods aren’t necessarily better but they could dent your food budget.

If you’re looking for phytochemicals naturally present in food in addition to cocoa, you’ll find them in certain fruits and veggies, soy foods, wheat bran, oats and red wine for possibly fewer calories and less money.

Regardless of how you decide to indulge in chocolate, be it wrapped around bacon or a berry, enjoy a little sweetness with this treat and do your heart good.