Page 1 of 2A dessert. An antidepressant. A favorite indulgence. Since its discovery thousands of years ago, chocolate has become many things to many people. The Mayan people crushed the seeds of the chocolate (cacao) tree and mixed them with spices to make a frothy beverage, which was consumed at social events and religious ceremonies. Chocolate was woven into many aspects of their culture—it appeared in much of their artwork and was even used as a method of currency.
Today, chocolate is used to satisfy a sweet tooth more than anything else. But recent research about the health benefits of chocolate may persuade you to explore the world of chocolate a little more. The findings suggest that chocolate’s naturally occurring phytochemicals, called flavanols, may help to prevent high blood pressure, improve heart health, and increase insulin sensitivity. But all chocolate is not created equal, and not all types of chocolate offer these health benefits. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting your currency’s worth when you shop for a chocolate bar.
All chocolate originally comes from cacao (or cocoa) beans. The beans are harvested, dried and shipped to processing plants where the outer layer is removed. The stripped-down bean is then roasted and milled to produce chocolate liquor. The liquor is used to make cocoa powder for both dark and milk chocolate, chocolate mixes and chocolate syrups. Some cocoa powder is further processed to produce what’s known as Dutch cocoa powder. “Dutch processed” or “alkalized” reduces the acidity, but this processing step reduces the beneficial flavanols by 60-90 percent.
The flavonoid content of chocolate and cocoa-related products varies greatly and labels can be tricky to decipher. The amount of flavonoid content is based on the amount of cocoa solids contained, the processing techniques used, and even the growing conditions of the beans.
During processing, cocoa butter, the natural fat of the cocoa bean, is removed. When a high-quality chocolate bar is made from this processed cocoa, the manufacturer will add cocoa butter back in to the recipe. However, commercial manufacturing giants save money and extend the shelf life of their products by adding unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to chocolate instead of cocoa butter. These companies save money at the expense of your health. Read labels and choose a chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not partially hydrogenated oils.