David Grotto, RD, LDN
There doesn’t seem to be much grey area here. Either you love it or you can’t stand it. At least, that’s been my experience in talking to thousands of patients and clients over my career about their feelings when it comes to the taste of chocolate. This polar extreme of opinion also seems to exist when it comes to the health benefits of chocolate.
Many health professionals today not only say that chocolate can be included in a healthy diet in moderation, of course, but go so far as to encourage its inclusion in the diet. Others warn that it is a decadent treat that people should be leery of because it can be easily over consumed and contribute unwanted calories to our already calorie-heavy American diet.
I just got back from a wonderful seminar on chocolate, or, rather, a primer on “cacao”. Maybe it’s best to explain the difference between chocolate, cocoa, and cacao before we delve into what the science has to say about America’s love-hate relationship with this bean…er…I mean fruit – strike that, I meant seed. Arghhh! Before I hurt myself in trying to explain any further, let me break down the terms for you.
Chocolate is a term used to describe three main types of product derived from the cocoa or cacao tree (more on that in a minute): dark, milk, and white chocolate. The FDA has established very strict guidelines or Standards of Identity (SOI) that specifies what ingredients constitute the various forms of chocolate. However, for “dark chocolate,” there really isn’t a SOI for the term “dark” but there is for semi-sweet (bittersweet) and sweet chocolate, which are often referred to as dark chocolate. The difference between all of them is the amount of chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, and milk content.
Cocoa v. Cacao. The term “cocoa” refers to both the plant and powder from the tree. The word cacao is thought to originate from Latin-based romance languages but is in essence used interchangeably with the term cocoa. Percent (%) cacao refers to the proportion of the product made from the cocoa bean. The botanical name for the cocoa plant is Theobroma Cacao. And lastly, cocaine is NOT derived from the cocoa plant but instead from the “Coca” plant.
Fruit or vegetable? The pod in which cocoa beans are found is actually considered a fruit, not a vegetable. In fact, cocoa beans are not beans or legumes at all but rather seeds – like what you would find in a watermelon.
How is cocoa made? Cocoa trees grow in regions that are +/-20 degrees latitude from the equator. The cocoa seeds are taken from the pods and allowed to ferment in banana leaves, then dried in the sun. Cocoa seeds are cracked open and those are called “nibs”. From there, cocoa nibs are pressed to remove chocolate liquor. Roasted seeds can also be ground and pressed where the fatty substance (cocoa butter) is removed and cocoa powder is left over.
If you have ever tasted bittersweet chocolate you can understand why it’s called that. Many sweet chocolate products have been alkalized or “Dutched processed,” where the bitterness of the cocoa is removed. However, “alkalizing” reduced some of the health benefits of chocolate and that is why you’ve seen such a switch from eating milk chocolate to eating dark chocolate for health benefits.
Health benefits: There are over 711 identified nutrients and phytochemicals found in cocoa. Cocoa seeds are often considered a “superfruit” because of their nutrition content and they do have a higher ORAC score and flavanoid value compared to acai, blueberry, cranberry and grapes.
Historically, there have been over 150 medicinal uses of cacao, including many heart health benefits. Cultures that live near the equator have been using cocoa for its health benefits such as the Kuna Amerinds. Though they have a very high sodium diet, they don’t experience much high blood pressure. This may be attributed to the average of five cups of a cocoa beverage they consume every day, according to presenter Debra Miller, PhD, director of nutrition at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition. Cocoa, the main ingredient of this beverage, contains powerful plant nutrients called flavanols which help cells that make up the inside lining of arteries produce nitric oxide which relaxes the arteries. This allows more blood flow to the heart and the rest of the body, which in turn lowers blood pressure.
More than 250 studies show that natural cocoa and dark chocolate have health benefits, and a recent meta-analysis of research supports that cocoa flavanols not only help lower blood pressure but may help manage cholesterol and improve insulin sensitivity, too. A study in the Netherlands showed that elderly men who consumed chocolate regularly had a 50% reduced risk of developing heart disease and a 47% reduced risk of dying from all causes. Emerging research suggests that cocoa may also be beneficial in cognition and exercise recovery – especially when combined with milk. One study showed that athletes could do 27% more work after consuming chocolate milk and increased their time to exhaustion by 40%. Based on all of this research, I guess it would be difficult to achieve “death by chocolate”!
So what’s the controversy then? Depending on the product, chocolates can contribute a hefty calorie contribution if you’re not careful about portion sizes. There is also concern about promoting chocolate as the “magic bullet” for health woes or promoting candy bars as a “healthy food”. It’s really the cocoa powder content of chocolate that has the most nutrition and health benefit. So with that in mind, here’s some prudent advice on how to include cocoa products in your diet in a responsible manner:
1. Add one to two tablespoons of natural cocoa powder to your diet each day as an ingredient mixed in beverages or food.
2. Eat about an ounce (20-28 grams) of dark chocolate, preferably that has not been Dutch processed. Also, the percent of cacao or cocoa can be meaningful or meaningless from a health standpoint. The great amount of cocoa can bring with it more healthy flavanols. However, if the chocolate product has been alkalized/Dutch processed, many of those flavanols can be lost in the processing.
Lastly, you can simply eat any chocolate product you want for the simple enjoyment of it all and not worry a bit of whether it is healthiest version or not. If this ultimately is your approach, still enjoy it moderately!
If you add cocoa powder into your foods and beverages, please share your favorite ways to enjoy it. I don’t know about you but straight off the spoon is no fun! Share some of your ideas in the comments below!