I cringe a little when I hear people start talking about the health benefits of chocolate. I know that eventually the discussion is going to reach a point where I will have to speak up and explain the truth, because that is just what a dietitian has to do. Then I have people looking at me like I’m the one that blew out the candles on their birthday cake. The role of a dietitian just isn’t fun sometimes. So with Easter just around the corner, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at the actual health benefits of chocolate.
In 2009, U.S. retail chocolate sales topped $17.3 billion, a new record. An increase in health claims contributed to the rise in sales. Consumption by quantity peaked at 12.6 pounds per person in 2005 and has since fallen to 11.8 pounds in 2009. That averages out to about half an ounce a day every day of the year, or about 23 Hershey’s Kisses a week per person.
The cocoa bean, not really a bean at all but the seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree, is about 54 percent fat, 31 percent carbohydrate, 11 percent protein and 3 percent polyphenols. Once the seed is fermented, it is roasted, ground and pressed into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. The cocoa butter provides the fat in chocolate in equal amounts of oleic acid, stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. Stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol, not raising or lowering it. Palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, but it is only about one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. Oleic acid, also found in olive oil, is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fatty acids lower total cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol.
Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is rich in flavonoids, substances that may actually help stave off heart disease. Flavonoids are also present in red wine and tea, apples, cranberries, grapes, onions and other plant-derived foods. Flavonoids have powerful antioxidant effects. Antioxidants help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing and from environmental contaminants such as smoking. When there aren’t enough antioxidants in the body, damage from free radicals occurs and leads to an increase in bad cholesterol and the formation of plaque on the walls of the arteries.
Flavanols are the specific type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavanols, which give cocoa a pungent taste, are often lost during cocoa processing. The more chocolate is processed the more flavanols are lost. Unfortunately, most commercial chocolates are highly processed. It is said that dark chocolate contains the highest level of flavanols, but it actually depends on how the dark chocolate was processed.
For health purposes, choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate and cocoa powder that has not undergone “Dutch” processing to neutralize its natural acidity.
The consumption of small amounts of dark chocolate has been linked to health benefits. Creamy Chocolate Pudding
Makes 6 Servings
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2½ cups low-fat milk
- ½ cup evaporated fat-free milk
- 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine first 4 ingredients in medium saucepan; stir with whisk. Gradually add milks, continuing to whisk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat, simmer 1 minute or until thick. Remove from heat and add chocolate, stirring until mixture is smooth. Stir in vanilla. Pour into pudding dishes and cover surface with plastic wrap. Chill at least 4 hours. Serve garnished with fresh mint sprigs if desired.
Per serving: 194 calories, 4.6 grams fat, 2.7 grams saturated fat, 6 grams protein, 35 grams carbs, 1.4 grams fiber, 191 mgs calcium, 175 mgs sodium, 1.0 mg iron
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian who lives in Athens, Maine. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.