If you think steamed spinach is the most mouthwatering health food, you may want to reconsider. A candy bar’s worth of dark chocolate, or 100 grams, has just as many antioxidants as 100 grams each of spinach, prunes, raisins, kale, and Brussels sprouts, combined. According to Jeff Hurst, PhD, principal scientist at The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, cacao, the plant responsible for dark chocolate’s delights, contains more than 700 compounds, including 26 known anti-inflammatories, 14 antiseptics, 12 analgesics, and two anesthetics.
What’s more, recent research shows that cacao’s flavonoids, or antioxidant-rich plant pigments, help lower blood pressure, improve circulation, and reduce blood clotting. Dark chocolate contains a significant amount of the flavonoid resveratrol, the heart-healthy antioxidant found in red wine, and hot cocoa was shown to have more cancer-fighting plant phenols than the wine, according to a recent study.
Good news for those who shun chocolate because they’re worried about gaining weight: A recent study found that consuming 100 grams of dark chocolate daily reduced food cravings. New research also suggests that snacking on 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily for two weeks decreases stress hormones, also linked to weight gain.
Much of the health buzz surrounding chocolate is not surprising when you consider that cacao comes from a fruit—or rather, the seeds of a fruit. Cacao trees, grown commercially in equatorial regions, bear fruit pods filled with a sweet pulp that contains 20 to 50 seeds, known as cacao beans. Farmers scoop out the pulp and allow it to ferment before harvesting the beans to reduce their bitterness and enhance flavor. Chocolatiers roast beans, mixing them with sugar and other ingredients to produce the array of chocolate products found in stores today.
Some manufacturers add preservatives and artificial ingredients such as corn syrup and hydrogenated oils to roasted beans, but you can avoid these unhealthy—and unnecessary—additives by choosing your chocolate brand wisely. Always check ingredient labels to make sure you’re not getting more than you bargained for. Cacao nibs and cocoa powder are single-ingredient foods, meaning they should contain only nibs or only powder. Processed chocolate should consist of only cacao (often labeled as cacao/cocoa liquor or mass), cocoa butter (the plant’s proprietary fat), sugar, vanilla, and soy lecithin, which is added for consistency, though some high-end manufacturers omit the emulsifier in favor of a slightly more crumbly texture. Vegetable fat is often blended into lower-quality chocolates, which detracts from the flavor and adds calories. Except for the milk fat in milk chocolate, chocolate should not contain any added fats other than cocoa butter.
To enjoy cacao as close to its natural form as possible, pick up a bag of cacao nibs—cacao beans that have been fermented, roasted, stripped of their husks, and broken into bits. Nibs have the highest cacao content of all edible chocolate, contain no sugar, and should taste fruity, not bitter. (Chocolate can also taste fruity, but this is often masked when sugar is added.) Askinosie Chocolate sells pure nibs with facts on region of origin.
Try it: Swap nibs for walnuts in banana bread by using half the measurement of nuts that the recipe calls for. Or mix nibs with cashews and dried fruit, such as cherries or cranberries, for a new twist on trail mix.
Much of chocolate’s recent health research has focused on high-cacao dark chocolate. There is no official classification for dark chocolate, though most artisan chocolatiers label products “dark” when they contain between 55 percent and 99 percent cacao. The remaining percentage of ingredients in dark chocolate should be sugar and no more than 1 percent combined vanilla and soy lecithin. The higher the cacao content, the less sugar.
Milk chocolate, by comparison, can contain as little as 10 percent cacao, making dark chocolate a far healthier treat. But there is no magic number for cacao, and how dark you like your chocolate is a personal preference: Some enthusiasts revel in E. Guittard’s 91 percent cacao Nocturne bar, while others enjoy the familiar bittersweet taste of Chocolove’s Dark Chocolate bar with 55 percent cacao.
Try it: In lieu of a cheese plate, serve a dish arranged with gourmet dark chocolates, fresh fruits, and organic nuts at your next dinner party. Or melt 3 ounces of dark chocolate with 1 ounce of cold-pressed olive oil for a heart-healthy fondue. Offer fresh fruit for dipping.
Cocoa powder has been on the market since 1828, when Dutchman Coenraad van Houten invented a press that could remove cocoa butter from cacao beans, leaving behind a cakey substance that could be pulverized. While cacao beans contain about 50 percent fat, much of this is eliminated when cocoa butter is pressed, allowing many cocoa powders to contain as little as 12 percent fat.
Cocoa powder provides more resveratrol than dark chocolate, and a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 40 grams of cocoa powder dissolved in skim milk can help reduce arterial inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease. Opt for a natural cocoa like Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder over “Dutch-processed” cocoa, which loses antioxidant potency during the pressing process and is better used for baking. Some all-natural cocoa doesn’t dissolve in liquid as easily as mainstream brands, but they offer significantly more antioxidants.
Try it: Cocoa can be an excellent addition to chili con carne, or try combining the dry powder with sea salt for a rub on grilled meat.
By Emily Stone, a freelance journalist whose addiction to chocolate forms the basis of her blog. // chocolateincontext.com