Once upon a time, chocolate was considered a “junk food,” reserved for special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. But in recent years, experts have realized that the sweet treat — when consumed in moderation — is not just a source of “empty calories.”
Instead, it can actually help boost your heart health.
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are rich in flavonoids, a class of plant nutrients that boasts antioxidant properties.
Simply put, flavonoids help protect plants from toxins in the environment and repair damage. When people consume food with flavonoids, like some forms of chocolate, they appear to benefit from their “antioxidant” properties, too.
According to a report from the Cleveland Clinic:
Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, it can become damaged by free radicals.
But flavonoids’ antioxidant properties are just the beginning. Flavanols, the main type of flavonoid present in chocolate, can also boost health by:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Controlling cholesterol
- Reducing the risk of blood clots
- Improving blood flow to the heart and brain
However, it is a mistake to think all chocolate is the same. We hate to add a dash of sour to your sugary-sweet dreams, but your favorite bar might not be your best bet in terms of health benefits.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of chocolate, from “have another piece” to “proceed with caution.”
1. Dark (or semi-sweet) chocolate
Dark chocolate is generally the healthiest of the three major types of chocolate. It is the purest form of chocolate with the greatest cocoa content — and, therefore, the most flavonoids.
The Food and Drug Administration has not established rules for which ingredients must be present before a chocolate can be classified as “dark.” However, the Cleveland Clinic says dark chocolate should contain at least 35 percent cocoa. It also states that the darker the chocolate, the better, and some varieties contain as much as 85 percent cocoa.
As if you need another reason to indulge in dark chocolate, the popular confection may also help with weight management. According to Women’s Health:
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that dark chocolate is far more filling, offering more of a feeling of satiety than its lighter-colored sibling. That is, dark chocolate lessens cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. So indulging in a bit of healthy dark chocolate should not only make it easy for you to stick to the small portion recommended for optimal health, but it should make it easier for you to stick to your diet in general.
2. Milk chocolate
The FDA requires that milk chocolate contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor, at least 3.39 percent milkfat, and at least 12 percent milk solids.
According to the Cleveland Clinic:
Like dark chocolate, the remainder is cocoa butter, sugar, an emulsifier (often lecithin), and vanilla or other flavorings.
Milk chocolate takes the No. 2 slot on the health hit parade. This middle-of-the-road chocolate choice contains more fat and sugar than its darker counterpart, and much less cocoa.
3. White chocolate
The last and least healthy type is white chocolate, a chocolate derivative.
FDA rules state that for chocolate to be classified as white, it must have 20 percent by weight or more of cacao fat (i.e., “cocoa butter”), at least 3.5 percent by weight of milkfat and at least 14 percent by weight of total milk solids. In addition, it must not have more than 55 percent by weight nutritive carbohydrate sweetener.
White chocolate also contains lecithin, vanilla and additional flavorings.
Note that “cocoa butter” is not the pure cocoa found in dark and milk chocolate varieties. What do you think that means in terms of its impact on your health?
Chocolate, like most tempting foods, should be enjoyed in moderation. The Cleveland Clinic recommends that you can indulge in up to 1 ounce (about one-third of a standard-sized bar) of dark chocolate daily.
By contrast, the Cleveland Clinic recommends eating milk chocolate just occasionally, and consuming white chocolate only rarely — or avoiding it altogether.When choosing your chocolate, try to avoid varieties with excess sugar, butter and fillings, such as caramel or nougat, which can add extra fat and calories. It’s also a good idea to try to incorporate other flavonoid sources in your diet, such as apples, cranberries, onions, tea and red wine.
Finally, it is important to note that heart benefits of chocolate may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. For example, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
Although it was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels flavanols, recent research indicates that, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed, this may not be true. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates.
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