Like most children, I was a huge fan of chocolate. The holidays, in particular, were always about chocolate indulgence. It meant plenty of Hershey bars, M&M’s, Snickers, Reese’s peanut butter cups…and let’s not forget the hot chocolate concoctions. As I grew older all that indulgence not only made me feel guilty but also affected my appearance because of constant facial skin breakouts and dark spots.
Undoubtedly it had to change. Not wanting to give it up completely, I looked into the various ingredients in chocolate treats to see where I could cut down on the unhealthy stuff. Unsurprisingly, most mass-produced chocolate has a great deal of added white sugar, the health hazards of which have been extremely well documented. To make a long story short I weaned myself of that commercial sweetness and discovered the flavor of dark chocolate. Many manufacturers enhance dark chocolate’s deep, complex flavor by adding spices such as vanilla, sea salt, or cinnamon. In terms of texture, adding ingredients such as crushed cocoa nibs, coffee beans, chia seeds, nuts, puffed rice, or quinoa can be interesting. Besides cocoa butter, the richness of chocolate can be supported with nut butters, e.g. peanut butter, almond butter or coconut butter.
A plus point is that a number of chocolate brands have been popping up that are organic and fair trade. Naturally such chocolates suit the sustainable mind set. If you don’t want to eat soy products look out for the emulsifying ingredient soy lecithin; many brands contain it.
Taking chocolate under the microscope
Fat: Here is the good news - some of the fats in chocolate do not impact your cholesterol. The fats in chocolate are:
1/3 oleic acid. Oleic acid is a healthy monounsaturated fat, the kind that is also found in olive oil.
1/3 stearic acid. Stearic acid is a saturated fat but it has a neutral effect on cholesterol.
1/3 palmitic acid, which is a form of saturated fat. It is said to raise cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
That means the worry of fat is considerably lower in dark chocolate, since only 1/3 of the fat in it is not that great for you.
The flavonol factor
If you’re a dark chocolate lover, you’ve probably seen the research that suggests it has
important health benefits. After all, who doesn’t want to justify their chocolate addiction in the name of living a long life? The greatest benefit from dark chocolate comes with the highest concentration of cocoa, which contains flavonols. Flavonols are antioxidants, mopping up damaging free radicals that are produced during cell metabolism. There is evidence that this prevents the onset of cancer. Furthermore, flavonols can reduce high blood pressure since they make blood vessels more elastic. In extra-bitter chocolate, flavonols are present in concentrations 8 times the number found in strawberries.
It’s a common belief, especially among the parents of chocoholic children, that chocolate can get you wired. You may have heart that chocolate contains caffeine but also the lesser-known theobromine, which has similar affect to caffeine but with a milder sway. Chocolate acts as a stimulant to endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure. Even better, that dark goodness contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant.
Can you OD on chocolate?
You may ask how much chocolate is ok to enjoy before its advantages are cancelled out by the bad fats and the added sugar. Suggestions for a concrete amount are hard to come by. I learned about a study of nearly 20,000 people, followed over a period of eight years. It concluded that those who ate an average of 6 grams (0.2 oz) of chocolate per day had a 39 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke. That’s a very small amount of chocolate, but it’s worth mentioning that the study did not put a cap on eating chocolate. Still, let’s be realistic. It does not mean that you should eat a pound of chocolate a day. In fact chocolate is still a high-calorie, high-fat food. One bar of dark chocolate has around 400 calories. If you eat half a bar of chocolate a day, it’s not a bad idea to balance those 200 calories by eating less of something else, e.g. pasta, bread or butter. Do it like me. I simply cut out other sweets or snacks and replace them with dark chocolate to keep my total calories consumed the same.
Taste the Chocolate
It is a complex food with over 300 compounds and chemicals in each bite. To really enjoy and appreciate chocolate take the time to taste it. Savor the appearance, smell, mouth-feel and taste of each bite.
Go for Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has far more antioxidants than milk or white chocolate. The latter two latter can’t, unfortunately, make any health claims. In the US, milk chocolate has to contain only 10 percent cocoa butter and white chocolate, 20 percent; the rest is often an excessive amount of sugar. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, has 65 percent or higher cocoa content. My suggestions are to look for pure dark chocolate or dark chocolate with nuts, orange peel or other natural, unprocessed flavorings. Avoid anything with caramel, nougat or other fillings. These fillings are adding tons of sugar and unnecessary fat, which erase many of the benefits you get from eating the chocolate.
It may taste good, but research shows that washing your chocolate down with a glass of milk could prevent the antioxidants being absorbed or used by your body.
Now, if you’re a little more convinced to give dark chocolate a go try it with the following hot chocolate recipe. Enjoy!
OD Hot Chocolate
(recipe makes four cups)
4 cups nut milk such as almond or cashew
4 tablespoons maple syrup
1 pinch cayenne powder
1 stick cinnamon, cut in half lengthwise
1/8-teaspoon sea salt
4 ounces dark chocolate (preferably at least 75% percent cacao) broken into small piece
1) In a pot combine cinnamon and nut milk and bring to boil.
2) On the side of the stove add the other ingredients.
3) Mix with a whisk until the chocolate has melted.
4) Steep for five minutes.
Tip: If you’re into spiked hot chocolate like me add 1 ounce rum just before drinking it.