Oh, chocolate, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Chocolate helps us quell our PMS-induced cravings and nurse our wounds after heart-wrenching breakups—not to mention that it just tastes so good. To our delight, recent studies have the media singing the praises of this decadent dessert that’s previously had a bad rap, health-wise. We know you’ve seen those news flashes on the internet proclaiming, “Chocolate is good for you!” But to score chocolate’s true health benefits, you have to know which kinds to choose.
Chocolate is made from cocoa, also known as cacao, grown on trees in the tropical forests of South America in the form of a bean. Cocoa contains high levels of flavonoids, which are “the natural chemical substances in chocolate that have favorable health properties,” says Jackie Keller, an L.A.-based health and nutrition expert.
Why should you care about flavonoids? They can improve blood vessel function, which keeps your blood pumping freely throughout your body, and they can also reduce blood clots—those nasty little things that can cause heart attacks and strokes later in life. Flavonoids also clean up free radicals, which are absolutely-no-good molecules that can cause cell damage, cancer and aging, says MariAnn Rhodes, MS, RD, LDN, a Chicago area–based nutritionist. That doesn’t mean that gorging yourself on chocolate will automatically erase your wrinkles when you’re older, but a flavonoid-rich diet is thought to lessen the signs of aging.
If all this chocolate-is-good-for-you news is making you want to rush to the nearest vending machine or bakery—STOP! Sadly, all chocolate is not created equal. “The addition of milk dilutes the concentration of cocoa solids and lessens flavonoids,” says Massachusetts-based nutritionist Laura Zohman. This means you’ll receive the most health benefits from a solid chocolate—not chocolate cake, pudding or cookies—that also has a high cocoa content. Here’s a breakdown of cocoa content for the three types of commercially-made chocolate out there:
White chocolate: contains no cocoa bean solids
Milk chocolate: contains 7 to 50 percent cocoa
Dark chocolate: contains 50 to 85 percent cocoa
Because these categories vary widely, Zohman recommends looking for a dark chocolate with 70 percent or greater cocoa content noted on the label. Brands to look for include Scharffen Berger, Dagoba, Santander, Godiva, Amadei, Endangered Species, NEWTREE Chocolates and Cacao Reserve by Hershey’s. This higher cocoa content means a lower sugar and fat content, which gives dark chocolate a stronger, more bitter taste in comparison to lighter milk chocolate. In addition, check the ingredients label when shopping for chocolate. “Choose…chocolates containing real cocoa butter, not hydrogenated oils and milk fats, which are unhealthy,” says Zohman. “Look for real vanilla and other natural ingredients, rather than artificial additives.”
Words of Wisdom
Unfortunately, “the more the better” rule of thumb doesn’t apply to dark chocolate. Sticking to a healthy serving size is essential, as even the darkest chocolate also contains sugar, saturated fat and about 150 calories per ounce (that’s usually one or two squares, depending on the bar). Nutritionists recommend dark chocolate as a smart substitute for other treats, like brownies or cookies, but you still need to maintain a balanced diet of fruits, veggies and whole grains—all of which offer their own doses of beneficial antioxidants and vitamins. “A one-ounce serving daily can be a delicious way to obtain the health benefits and a bite of pure enjoyment, too,” Keller explains.
Keep in mind that chocolate isn’t for everyone. “We are all biochemically different,” Zohman says, “and do not tolerate foods in the same way.” She explains that chocolate contains theobromine, a caffeine-like chemical which can cause headaches or insomnia for some people, while Rhodes adds that chocolate can also aggravate acid reflux for others. In these cases, it’s best to steer clear of chocolate altogether.