Americans love chocolate. According to some reports, the typical American eats between 11 and 12 pounds of chocolate each year.
However, not all chocolate is created equal, health-wise. Healthy eaters prefer treats that contain nutrient-rich ingredients without a lot of added sugar. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is packed with added sweeteners.
According to nutritionist Julie Nygard, author of “The Chocolate Therapist: A Users Guide to the Extraordinary Benefits of Chocolate,” if you eat milk chocolate, you’re really just going for the sugar. “You like the idea of chocolate, but you’re not really into chocolate,” she says.
How It’s Made
Bitter chocolate is made by pressing roasted seeds from the fruit of the cacao (cocoa) tree between hot rollers. A powder can then be produced by squeezing the fat (cocoa butter) out of the bitter chocolate and powdering the remaining material. To make milk chocolate, sugar, vanilla, milk, and other ingredients are added to the bitter chocolate.
The most nutritious chocolate starts with a powder base. “It’s made from the most nutrient-dense part of the fruit because you’ve extracted all the liquid. So, you have a high-potency fruit that is the base,” says Nygard.
The Good and the Bad
Chocolate is healthy in its purest forms, either as a powder or bitter liquid, but when you combine it with sugar and other additives, the health benefits are greatly reduced. “If you dilute it with all the sugars, preservatives, and artificial ingredients, you don’t have a high enough quantity of what’s good for you, says Nygard.
She recommends dark chocolate over milk chocolate because it contains a higher percentage of nutrient-rich antioxidants. “It helps dilate blood vessels and reduces your blood pressure,” she says. “It can dilate your blood vessels up to 20 percent.”
The flavonoids in chocolate act as antioxidants and are known for their positive effects on mood and stimulation of brain perfusion, and have been shown to preserve cognitive abilities. “One of the antioxidants in chocolate crosses over the blood-brain barrier and can help protect against amyloid clog buildup, which is one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease,” she explains.
One of the biggest myths about chocolate is that it can cause high cholesterol. “Chocolate in of itself does not raise cholesterol,” she says. “Taking chocolate out of your diet is not going to help lower your cholesterol.” Likewise, eating fudge is not going to improve your heart health “once you put in massive amounts of sugar and all of that butter.
“You have to get serious about your chocolate if you are going to use it for the health benefits,” says Nygard. She recommends eating chocolate that contains 70% or more of the nutrient-rich cocoa base, even if there are added sweeteners, because it provides enough of the health benefits to have a positive effect.
Eating dark chocolate is an acquired taste, so you may need to take it slow. “If you start going just a little bit darker or mix it—maybe a little milk, a little dark—your palate develops and becomes more attuned to the flavor of chocolate,” she says.
This article was originally published in Radiant Life Magazine.