It's been said that chocolate has several positive effects on the human body. Not only does it make you feel better, due to the release of endorphins, but it also works to protect your overall health. Sounds great, right? Nevertheless, before you start stocking up with chocolate, it’s important you know that these health benefits are subject to the type and amount of chocolate you consume. In a nutshell, the key is to eat/drink dark chocolate in small amounts, especially if health is your pretext for indulging in the decadent treat.
“A dark chocolate a day keeps the doctor away,” says a popular adage. In order to understand how the health benefits of chocolate work, we have to refer to its origins. Chocolate comes from a plant, the cocoa tree, and like many other plant-derived products, it contains a generous amount of an active compound called flavonoid.
Flavonoids have a powerful antioxidant effect. This means this substance helps your body get rid of free radicals, which are unwanted molecules that can speed up aging and certain diseases. Moreover, flavonoids keep cholesterol from gathering in the blood vessels, therefore reducing the risk of blood clots that may cause heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular diseases. Green tea, red wine and blueberries, among other fruits, have the same effect; however, chocolate has been proven to be the most efficient edible ally when it comes to cleaning your body from free radicals.
As if this weren’t enough, multiple studies claim that antioxidant-rich diets may help prevent further health complications regarding high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.
In fact, preliminary research at West Virginia Wheeling Jesuit University suggests that chocolate may contain valuable nutrients for our brains. This hypothesis establishes that by increasing the blood flow to the brain, flavonoids in chocolate could boost problem-solving skills, attention span, reaction time and memory.
However, brain and heart are not the only organs that could benefit from chocolate’s action. It’s been said that, thanks to the increase of blood flow driven by flavonoids, added to their antioxidant properties and alleged capacity of absorbing UV light, they could improve the skin’s appearance.
What About Cholesterol?
In theory, the type of saturated fat found in chocolate -called stearic acid- doesn’t raise blood cholesterol. It's the extra ingredients (like sugar and artificial flavors) that change chocolate’s nutritional impact. This explains why medical studies agree that if consumed in moderate amounts, dark chocolate shouldn’t be a concern in terms of cholesterol.
What you should care about is your calorie intake. In average, a small piece of dark chocolate has only 50 calories, but most candy bars contain at least 200. That’s chocolate’s downside compared with fruits and vegetables.
For instance, a 100 gram serving of a Ghirardelli Midnight Reverie (about six squares) has about 415 calories. Yet, the same portion of raw apple contains only 52 calories. Both are rich in flavonoids; nonetheless, the first one has more calories and lacks the vitamins in the fruit; hence the importance of adopting a balanced diet and moderating your chocolate consumption.
Dark, Milk or White?
The chocolate we buy at the store is the result of a process in which the cocoa beans are roasted, winnowed and then grounded. The main derivative of this process is chocolate liquor, a substance that holds the cocoa beans’ essence and all of its natural properties (there is no alcohol in it). From this liquid, manufacturers extract cocoa powder and cocoa butter. In its purest state, chocolate liquor is quite bitter and not very creamy, that’s why chocolate makers reduce its percentage in order to add milk, sugar, vanilla and cocoa butter to sweeten it up and improve its texture.
The rule of thumb regarding the ratio of a chocolate’s recipe and the health benefits it may provide is really simple: the more cocoa in a chocolate product, the higher the antioxidant flavonoid content is, thus the better for your health. Dark chocolate - also known as bittersweet or semisweet - contains at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, plus cocoa butter and sugar in varying amounts. Milk chocolate usually contains ten percent chocolate liquor, at least 12 percent milk, plus cocoa butter and sugar. White chocolate doesn’t include any chocolate liquor.
Because dark chocolate has more cocoa content, it's higher in flavonoids than milk or white chocolate. This explains why, when it comes to chocolate and its health benefits, darker is better. And remember: you don’t need to feel guilty if you enjoy a piece of dark chocolate every once in a while. As long as you're reasonable and follow the recommendations - chocolate does the body good!