One food that has derailed more diets than any other is probably chocolate. Whether it be the birthday cake at the office or that tempting chocolate bar at the grocery check-out counter, chocolate is always hard to resist. As trainers and nutritionists, we often include it as one of those cheat foods. "Enjoy it while you can and only in moderation," we will tell our clients. But is chocolate really that bad? Should we believe the media hype surrounding the potential health benefits of this sinful food?
Here’s the scoop on everything you ever needed to know about chocolate.
Why Do We Crave Chocolate?
Let’s face it. The idea that the sweetness of fruit is going to satisfy a chocolate craving is just silly. When the urge hits, there is very little that can be done to stop it until the only thing left of that Mars bar is the package. So why do we need it so bad?
There appear to be many reasons why chocolate seems to be so addictive. For example, the sugar in chocolate can increase the levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitters: serotonin and endorphins. Chocolate also contains an amphetamine-like compound called phenylethylamine (PEA), which is generated in relatively high amounts in the brain when happy events occur (i.e., falling in love). Chocolate also contains caffeine (although not very much), which provides an energy boost and small amounts of a substance called anandamide that mimics the pleasurable effects of marijuana by binding to the same receptor sites on brain cells as the active ingredient in the happy plant. Even the aroma of chocolate may affect brain chemistry.
However, the addiction some people claim they have to chocolate is not nearly as strong as the urge for nicotine. The sweetness, aroma and the melt-in-your mouth quality of chocolate makes it very appealing. Despite this, there is a real difference between being addicted to something (e.g. cigarettes, heroin) and just liking something a lot. And as I am about to tell you, liking chocolate has both its positives and negatives.
What’s Good About Chocolate?
Cocoa and chocolate products have been delicacies for centuries, but only recently have they been recognized as significant sources of phytochemicals with healthful effects. Chocolate and cocoa powders are derived from beans that contain hefty amounts of phytochemicals called flavonoids that are also found in fruits, vegetables, tea and wine. Flavonoid compounds are found almost exclusively in the plant kingdom, and it’s estimated that there are more than 4,000 of them. Various epidemiological studies have shown that populations consuming a diet rich in flavonoids (including foods such as wine, tea and certain fruits and vegetables) have lower rates of heart disease and stroke.
The specific flavonoids in chocolate receiving the most interest are the procyanidins, which are also present in apples and grapes. Both tea and red wine contain flavonoids called catechins. These catechins can bind together to make larger molecules called procyanidins that as mentioned, are present in the cocoa bean.
Some of the ways that chocolate’s flavonoids can be heart-healthy include:
1. Antioxidant Protection
Antioxidants gobble up free radicals, destructive molecules that are implicated in heart disease and other ailments like cancer. Flavonoids present in cocoa and chocolate may protect the heart by inhibiting the oxidation of the “bad cholesterol” called LDL (oxidized LDL is much more likely to result in the formation of plaque on the artery wall). Studies have shown that as the amount of chocolate flavonoids in the blood increases, there is a corresponding decrease in the markers associated with oxidation damage. In addition, the antioxidants in cocoa and chocolate may help spare other antioxidants such as vitamin C and E, which allows them to act longer to fight off foreign invaders.
2. Reduced Platelet Activity
Some studies indicate that after consuming flavonoids in chocolate, there is a decrease in markers associated with platelet aggregation and adhesion (stickiness of the blood/blood clotting). Both platelet aggregation and adhesion are associated with a higher risk of plaque formation on the artery wall. As plaque formation increases, so does the risk of a heart attack by blocking flow of blood to the heart. Thus, chocolate can almost have an aspirin-like effect.
3. Relaxation of Blood Vessel Wall
Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids may protect the heart by increasing concentrations of a substance called nitric oxide that relaxes the inner surface of blood vessel walls. This has the effect of increasing dilation of the arteries, which improves blood flow and heart functioning. This function of cocoa and chocolate may help those who have high blood pressure. In fact, a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that dark chocolate (but not white chocolate) lowered blood pressure in those with hypertension.
In addition, an Italian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 15 days of dark chocolate (as opposed to white chocolate) intake improved insulin sensitivity (increased glucose uptake). Nitric oxide bioavailability deeply influences insulin-stimulated glucose uptake, and flavonoids present in dark chocolate and cocoa increase nitric oxide bioavailability. This same study saw a reduction in blood pressure among dark chocolate participants.
4. Reduced Inflammation
Research reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that procyanidins (flavonoid found in the cocoa bean) can reduce blood levels of leukotrienes, which are a pro-inflammatory substance. This has positive effects on the immune system. In addition, this benefit could help protect the heart as inflammation in the lining of the artery walls is believed to be part of the damaging process that leads to cardiovascular disease.
What’s Bad About Chocolate?
The well publicized healthy properties of chocolate have lead many to believe they can enjoy chocolate in all its many forms. Not so fast! While the exact amount of cocoa or chocolate needed daily to exert health benefits is still yet to be determined, some studies have needed up to four ounces of antioxidant rich chocolate per day to elicit positive outcomes. Considering that an ounce of chocolate has roughly 145 calories and eight to 10 grams of fat, if most people simply added this much chocolate to their existing diets, it would be a sure fire ticket to the fat farm. Clients should be encouraged to substitute good-quality chocolate for other less healthy treats such as donuts, muffins and candy.
Also, all the studies showing promising health benefits from chocolate have used dark (“bittersweet”) chocolate and not the overly processed milk chocolates full of sugar that most people are consuming. Many find the taste of dark chocolate to be too overpowering and thus opt for the higher sugar forms with a lot less flavonoids.
Choosing the Healthiest Chocolate
If you would like to know which forms of chocolate are best to recommend to clients as a treat or satisfy those cravings, here is a simple guide you can use.
Pure cocoa is the best type of chocolate substance to consume since it’s the richest source of flavonoids and contains none of the added sugar and fat present in processed chocolate. Cocoa is made when chocolate liquor (the ground up center of the cocoa bean) is pressed to remove much of the cocoa butter. It is virtually calorie free. Cocoa powder can be added to smoothies, oatmeal and plain yogurt.
When purchasing a cocoa powder, make sure the only ingredient is cocoa powder (unsweetened cocoa). To preserve the flavonoids, it’s wise to look for a brand that uses non-alkaline processing. Alkalized cocoa is also known as “dutch” cocoa. This process, which increases the pH of the product, has a negative impact on flavonoid levels.
Carob powder comes from the dried pods of the carob tree. Although research has found that carob does contain relatively high amounts of antioxidants, its impact on heart health has yet to be studied to any great length.
2. Dark Chocolate Over Milk Chocolate
Dark chocolate contains up to twice as much antioxidants as milk chocolate. Milk chocolate, which is made when dry milk is added to sweetened chocolate, contains more milk and less chocolate liquor than dark chocolate. In fact, the major problem with milk chocolate is that the first two ingredients are often sugar and milk, leaving less pure chocolate and therefore less flavonoids.
In addition, research has found that the addition of milk to dark chocolate may cause chemical bonds to form between milk proteins and antioxidants in chocolate, thereby inhibiting the absorption of antioxidants into the body. However, this is a finding that has yet to be fully proven.
Did you know? White chocolate is made from cocoa butter and does not contain any chocolate liquor. Technically speaking, white chocolate is not chocolate at all. No flavonoids here.
Once cocoa beans are harvested and roasted, the oil (cocoa butter) is then separated from the other parts of the bean, called cocoa solids. At a later time, they are recombined during the process of making chocolate, with the addition of sugar. The more cocoa solids chocolate contains, the darker the chocolate and the more intense the flavor.
If cocoa, cocoa solids or chocolate liquor (the ground up center of the cocoa bean) is the first ingredient, then you know you are getting a lot of chocolate and less sugar. Chocolate bars with at least 70 percent cocoa can be considered “dark chocolate” and will have more flavonoids and less sugar. A bar that lists sugar as the first ingredient will contain less than 50 percent cocoa.
Organic and Fair Trade
Like any plant crop, cocoa can be exposed to pesticides. Of particular concern is the use of the organochlorine pesticide called Lindane, which is banned in Canada and Europe but not in many countries that produce cocoa. This pesticide is particularly dangerous to farmers and wildlife. An organic certification means your cocoa or chocolate choice is better for the health of farmers, the environment and you.
Organically grown cocoa beans are also more likely to be grown under the canopy of shade-giving trees. This means that large amounts of native forest are not cut down in favor of crop production. The trees under which cocoa grows provides much-needed habitat for many species of birds and animals and provides a winter habitat for many migratory songbirds.
The International Cocoa Organization estimates that there are approximately 14 million people around the world directly involved in the annual production of over six billion pounds of cocoa. While billions of dollars are made on an annual basis, very few producers receive prices that cover their costs of production or provide for a decent standard of living. The average cocoa grower and producer makes less than one penny per retail bar sold.
It is these same low prices that have led to the use of slave child labour in the Ivory Coast where much of the world’s cocoa is produced. Over a quarter of a million children are forced to work in West Africa's cocoa groves.
In order to address the problems associated with the conventional cocoa price structure and provide more sustainability for producers, purchasing cocoa or chocolate with a Fair Trade certification logo guarantees cocoa farmers a better return on their investment.
The Scoop on Cocoa Butter
In the chocolate manufacturing industry, cocoa butter is the fatty part of the cocoa bean and is a natural vegetable fat extracted from cocoa beans under high pressure. This cocoa butter is added to chocolate in manufacturing to get a smooth, creamy chocolate. It is a way to thin the thick chocolate to make it flow easier. At the same time, cocoa butter makes a richer chocolate product. The more cocoa butter, the richer the chocolate product.
The quality of chocolate depends on the amount of cocoa butter added during processing. The reason a piece of good chocolate melts immediately when eaten is because the melting point of cocoa butter is the same as our internal body temperature. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, which helps prevent melting in the package. Inferior brands of chocolate use vegetable shortenings instead of cocoa butter. Thus, cocoa butter is one of the ingredients used to make real chocolate; it gives chocolate the ability to remain solid at room temperature, and yet it melts easily in the mouth.
Cocoa butter makes up about 50 percent of the dry weight of a cocoa bean, with 70 percent of that being saturated fat. However, the saturated fat in cocoa butter is mainly stearic triglycerides that are less well absorbed than other saturated fats. Thus, cocoa butter is less bioavailable and has minimal effect on cholesterol levels as opposed to palmitic acid found in fatty meats and butter. Stearic acid has been referred to as a neutral fatty acid. The rest of the fat from cocoa butter is monounsaturated, which is the same healthy fat found in olive oil and avocados.
- Chocolate Liquor: After fermenting and roasting, the inner part of the cocoa bean is crushed and heated and then ground to a thick paste consisting of a combination of cocoa solids (cocoa powder) and cocoa butter. This combination is also called cocoa mass. Chocolate liquor does not contain any alcohol. Roasting helps develop the flavor of the chocolate. The cocoa mass can either be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder or used to make chocolate.
- Cocoa Powder (cocoa solids): The dry paste, rich in flavonoids, that is left when cocoa butter is removed from cocoa liquor.
- Cocoa Butter: An ivory-colored cocoa fat that can be separated from chocolate liquor. Separation occurs with the use of special presses so that the cocoa butter runs off. Most cocoa butter is used to make chocolate; however, some is used for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
- Lecithin: An emulsifier used to keep fats from separating out of the chocolate to help maintain a smooth consistency and longer shelf life. Usually derived from the fats of soybeans.
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