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Does Chocolate Deserve Superstar Status?

rsz_chocolateMy first book came out in 1998.  It was called “When In Doubt Eat Broccoli, but leave some room for chocolate!”  When I wrote this book I had no idea that chocolate was going to become the superfood it is today.  Does it deserve its superstar status?  It is really worthy of a place in our daily diet?  Here is what you need to know:

In the early 1990’s Harvard researchers began studying the Kuna Indians who live on small, remote islands just off the coast of Panama.  This population has among the lowest rates of heart disease and stroke in the world.  Cancer and type 2 diabetes are also uncommon.  Most striking is the fact that their blood pressure does not increase with age, as is seen in most parts of the world.   Those over the age of 60 have blood pressure that is as low as people in their 20’s or 30’s.  How is this possible?  The Kuna Indians drink about 4 to 5 cups of flavanol-rich cocoa each and every day.  Flavanols are the plant compounds in cocoa and dark chocolate linked to good health.  What happens when these people move to the mainland and stop drinking cocoa?  They see dramatic increases in their blood pressure and experience a much higher risk of disease – as much as 15 times higher.  Cocoa appears to be an all-star protector of health.

How does cocoa and dark chocolate keep us healthy?  Cocoa beans, from which cocoa and chocolate are made, are loaded (and I do mean loaded!!!) with these health-protective, plant compounds called flavanols.  Although these compounds are found in other foods like tea, red wine, apples and berries, they are found in the highest concentration, by far, in the cocoa bean.  The greatest claim to fame of these flavanols is their ability to stimulate the release of nitric oxide in your body.  Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to relax and widen and improves blood flow to your heart, brain, muscles and all your body parts.  These compounds also reduce inflammation, decrease the stickiness of your blood (they have an aspirin-like effect) and act as potent antioxidants.  They put cell-damaging free radicals out of business that can lead to diseases such as cancer or dementia.

Not all chocolate is created equal.  Researchers from the Hersey Center for Health and Nutrition looked at the flavanol content of different chocolate products.  On a gram weight basis, cocoa powder has the highest flavanol concentration followed by (from most to least) unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate (including semi-sweet baking chips), milk chocolate and finally chocolate syrup.  White chocolate does not contain any flavanols.

What type of cocoa is best?  Avoid “Dutch-processed” cocoa which has been treated with an alkalizing agent such as baking soda (potassium carbonate or sodium carbonate will be listed on the ingredient label).  This is done to reduce the acidity and mellow the flavour of cocoa, but it results in a loss of 40% to as much as 90% of the flavanols present.  Hershey’s and Ghiradelli are just some of the companies that produce “natural” cocoa products.  They are your best choice.  When you bake with cocoa, be sure to add baking powder and not just baking soda, to help preserve the flavanols that are there. 

What kind of chocolate is best?  In most cases, the more cocoa a chocolate product contains, the higher its flavanol content.  It’s wise to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate and to look for a bar that contains at least 60% to 70% cocoa.  Understand, however, that significant flavanol losses can take place during cocoa bean processing, especially in the roasting and fermentation stages of production.  Some companies, including Mars (CocoaVia) and Callebaut (Acticoa) process their cocoa and chocolate products in such a way as to minimize such losses.  In the future, we may see the flavanol content of all chocolate products listed on package labels.  I fully endorse this!

How much cocoa or chocolate should you consume?  Getting at least 200 mg of cocoa flavanols daily may help you maintain the elasticity of your blood vessels.  Higher intakes, closer to 500 mg daily, may provide even greater health protection.  One tablespoon of natural cocoa powder contains about 150 mg to 175 mg of flavanols.  Cocoa is also very low in fat and calories (just 10 calories per tablespoon!).  It is by far the healthiest way to get more flavanols into your diet.  You can stir cocoa into coffee (or lattes or cappuccino), milk, yogurt, oatmeal or shakes.  As for dark chocolate, the flavanol content varies considerably based on cocoa content and processing.  One ounce (28 g or about 4 squares) of most dark chocolate contains about 65 to 75 mg of flavanols.  Dark chocolate that has a high cocoa content and has been processed to preserve flavanols, however, may contain as much as 180 mg per ounce or more.  This same amount of chocolate, however, also comes with about 150 calories, 9 grams of fat and 3 teaspoons of sugar.  That’s why limiting chocolate to more than about one ounce daily makes sense for most people (unless you lead a very active lifestyle and can afford the extra calories).  Cocoa is the best way to up your intake of flavanols.

Lessons Learned:

Cocoa beans are loaded with plant compounds called flavanols that provide potent health protection, especially for your heart and blood vessels.  Enjoy dark chocolate (at least 60% to 70% cocoa) in small amounts.  The healthiest way to get more flavanols into your diet is with natural cocoa.

P.S.  If you haven’t tried it yet, be sure to try my cocoa drink.  It’s delicious!

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Liz

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