How much truth is there in the idea that chocolate can be a health food?
If it’s true, does that mean I am getting some health benefits from any chocolate product?
— Alice Costello
To answer this question, it is important to differentiate between cocoa and chocolate.
Cocoa refers to the seed from the cacao fruit. Chocolate, meanwhile, is a term that describes a product that, among other ingredients, contains cocoa.
In the vast majority of cases, chocolate is composed of cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and other additional ingredients (i.e., almonds) or flavorings (i.e, vanilla).
Many articles on this topic inaccurately mention the health benefits of chocolate. In reality, the focus should be on cocoa.
Cocoa contains a variety of flavonoids — a type of antioxidant — that have been found to have a protective effect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health.
To get the most out of cocoa, buy pure unsweetened cocoa powder and include it in a recipe (such as this no-bake brownie bites recipe I posted back in February).
Flavonoids are negatively affected by processing, which is why you get negligible amounts in popular milk chocolate products like M&Ms or Kit Kat bars.
That said, some chocolate bars contain higher flavonoid levels than others. Here are some guidelines to help you find them:
- Look for “cocoa powder” on the ingredient list. If you see “alkali-treated” or “Dutch processed” varieties of cocoa powder listed, you are looking at major flavonoid loss
- Look for chocolate bars that are comprised of at least 75% cocoa
- Ideally, look for chocolate bars that are milk-free (such as Endangered Species) or contain negligible amounts (such as Dagoba), since certain components in milk appear to limit the absorption of antioxidants from cacao.
If you seek out cocoa flavonoids in chocolate bars rather than cocoa powder, be sure to keep an eye on calories.
And, also, as wonderful as the flavonoids in cocoa are, there are plenty of other foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seeds) that offer various other varieties that are just as beneficial.
Remember, health is determined by the totality of your diet, not the inclusion of any one food.