With Halloween sneaking up on us, it seems a good time to say a few words about the health benefits of chocolate. First a disclaimer: I love dark chocolate and eat it regularly. But I am not going to defend my habit by making up facts. The science stands on its own: Chocolate has many health benefits!
But like any other plant food rich in nutrients, the health benefits are only there if the food is grown and prepared properly. And that's what's missing from all the stories about the health benefits of chocolate. How is the chocolate made?
Here's a little primer.
Chocolate comes from seeds found within the fruit of the cacao tree. Once the seeds, or cocoa beans, are harvested from the pod, they are fermented, dried, and roasted. Next the shells are removed and the beans are cracked into pieces called chocolate nibs. Some nibs are sold for cooking and baking, but most are ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor.
Chocolate liquor is processed to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter. The cocoa solids are more commonly known as cocoa powder, a bitter tasting, low fat baking ingredient. Cocoa butter is a pale-yellow, solid vegetable fat with a mild flavor. It is used to make toiletries, such as body lotion, and pharmaceuticals in addition to chocolate candy we know and love.
To make dark chocolate, the cocoa powder and butter are recombined in various ratios along with sugar, the emulsifier lecithin and sometimes vanilla. Milk solids are added to make milk chocolate. That mixture is then conched, or mechanically mixed, at various temperatures for up to 78 hours to develop the taste, texture and creamy consistency. A final melting and cooling process called tempering insures the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the chocolate.
At this point, those nutrient rich cacao beans – assuming they were grown under ideal conditions and harvested at their peak of ripeness - have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, cracked, mashed, liquefied, separated, recombined with other ingredients, refined, conched and tempered.
Do you get my point?
Cocoa beans are rich source of cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds that have been shown to improve circulation, heart function and cognition among other things. But when used to make chocolate, those cocoa beans are put through a lot.
At present there is no way to know the flavanol content of the chocolate you buy, no matter what percent cocoa it contains. Consequently it is not possible to make any recommendations about how much chocolate you should eat to get certain health benefits. And it is unlikely chocolate will ever be "prescribed" in that way.
So my advice is this: Whenever you eat chocolate, be sure you pick the one that tastes best to you!