How to Choose the Best Chocolate for Your Health

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All chocolate is not created equal. It all contains some cacao (same as cocoa, by the way), usually the main ingredient, that has taken on “Superfood” status as of late. But variations in quantity and processing may make a significant difference in the health benefit a given cacao-containing food can offer.

A growing body of scientific research supports dark chocolate and cacao for reduced blood pressure, improved blood vessel health, reduced cardiovascular disease risk and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, the bitter fermented seeds of the cacao fruit have extremely high antioxidant potency, scoring higher on the ORAC scale by weight than other common superfoods like acai, pomegranate, grapes and blueberries.

Studies have linked the health benefits to a group of bioactive compounds known as flavanols, part of a larger class of phytonutrients called polyphenols (think Resveratrol). Thus, it stands to reason that in order to maximize the health benefits we get from chocolate or cacao, we must maximize the concentration and integrity of the flavanols.

How can we do that? There are two main factors to consider in choosing the best chocolate for your health.

1) % cacao – The options for buying dark chocolate have grown from “milk,” “semi-sweet” or “bittersweet” to 40%, 52%, 60%, 70%, 85% and everything in between. The % cacao refers to the percentage of the product by weight made of ingredients from the cocoa plant. In general, from white chocolate made only with cocoa butter (just the fat – no flavanols) to 100% unsweetened baking chocolate, as the % cacao increases, the amount of health promoting flavanols will increase.

2) Alkalization and processing – If you’ve ever baked brownies from scratch, you might remember the recipe requiring Dutch processchocolate2 cocoa powder. The term Dutch process refers to the cacao powder being alkalized (may also say “cocoa processed with alkali”), a step that cuts the bitterness, improves solubility and darkens the color. Unfortunately it also reduces the flavanol content by anywhere from 60-90%. Don’t be fooled by the darker color and deeper chocolate flavor. What’s worse, even if you use natural raw cocoa powder in baking, the cooking process will reduce flavanol content, and your brownies might taste a bit off.

So when it comes down to it, just like most other foods, the more natural and less processed our cacao and chocolate is, the greater the health benefits.

Choose dark chocolate bars with as high a cacao % as you can tolerate while still getting some enjoyment. I generally say 70% or greater. Avoid sugary add-ins like toffee. Check the ingredients and skip bars that include cocoa processed with alkali (i.e., Hershey’s Special Dark). Most quality brands from Lindt to the more organic Green and Blacks will exclude this from their dark bars.

Add unsweetened natural cacao powder or raw cacao nibs to smoothies, yogurt, granola, desserts, or even savory sauces like Mexican molè. Bake with Dutch process cocoa ONLY when called for in a recipe and concede that whatever you’re making is not for the sake of your health!

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November 2022