| Courtesy of Chef Mary Beth Johnson
Get your pencils ready because it is time to take a quick health quiz. Do you know which food can help decrease bad cholesterol, reduce the risk of blood clots, increase blood flow, and possibly lower high blood pressure? Here’s a hint: This superfood is also known to improve your mood.
If you said chocolate, you’re correct.
This is the news that many of us have been waiting for. Studies are now showing that a small piece of chocolate – dark chocolate that is – can be good for your health.
The cocoa bean, the fruit of the cacao tree, contains a high amount of flavonoids, which are antioxidants known as polyphenols. This particular antioxidant is also found in red wine, tea, and certain fruits and vegetables. Dark chocolate reaps the antioxidant benefits because more of the flavonoids make it through processing the cocoa.
However, with this good news, don’t run out and buy bars of dark chocolate to consume all at once. It’s still chocolate and it has its share of calories. Sure, you can indulge in moderation.
Registered dietitian Althea Zanecosky recommends enjoying 1.5 ounces (about 150 calories) of dark chocolate a day to receive full antioxidant benefits.
“The appropriate size is that of a dark chocolate miniature bar. I tell clients to buy the chocolate in a user-friendly form. If you enjoy your chocolate, buy dark chocolate Hershey Kisses, count out six, and put the rest away.”
Don’t be tempted by milk chocolate, which offers little to no health benefits, says Zanecosky. Read the label. If you see that sugar, instead of cocoa, is one of the first ingredients, move on to the next selection. Also, stay away from chocolates with fillers like nougat or caramel that add more sugar and can reduce the effectiveness of dark chocolate’s flavonoids. If you want something in your chocolate, she recommends dark chocolate with added blueberries or almonds.
While the differences between milk and dark chocolate are obvious, it may be a little more difficult to recognize them when it comes to dark chocolate. See, not all dark chocolates are created equal.
Pay attention to the percentage number on the dark chocolate bar wrappers as well, says Dr. Leah Porter, vice president of the American Cocoa Research Institute (ACRI), the research arm of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA). The higher percentage points to higher flavor intensity.
“Higher percentages mean more cacao bean was used and fewer other ingredients. It also means the chocolate is less sweet. For instance, milk chocolate has a percentage of 30 to 35 because of the added vanilla and sugar.”
For good, quality dark chocolate, Porter recommends selecting a bar in the range of 45 percent or higher, depending on your personal taste preference.
“When the percentage is higher than 71, the chocolate is not for the faint of heart. It is very bitter and probably best for cooking.”
While all the focus is on dark chocolate bars, Porter says not to overlook cocoa. As the research progresses, more is being learned about its nutritional benefits. One tablespoon of the powder (which is made from roasted cocoa beans) contains one-half gram of fat. Less bitter than the chocolate used for cooking, that cocoa is being used in a way not thought of years ago, Porter says.
“There are recipes recommending cocoa as a dry rub for meat. There is also a recommendation to substitute cocoa for salt. People are learning that cocoa has a broader use, especially when it comes to cooking than dark chocolate.”
Nevertheless, dark chocolate aficionados shouldn’t worry, though. According to Porter, the sweet treat isn’t going away anytime soon.