Holiday Chocolate, Healthiest Choices

There are four different types of chocolate, and this is how each ranks.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an assortment of decadent chocolate treats under the tree.

Now just in time for the holidays, science has discovered yet another reason why craving that most tempting of foods might not be all bad.

Researchers at Loma Linda University have discovered that eating chocolate can reverse age-related decline in learning and memory by improving blood flow to the brain.

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Of course, we already know that chocolate can boost health by:

  • Reducing stress and improving mood
  • Curbing appetite
  • Improving cardiovascular function
  • Reducing the risk of stroke
  • Keeping skin healthy
  • Fighting the effects of aging
  • Promoting the growth of beneficial microoganisms in the intestines

 So what makes this savory sweet so beneficial? Chocolate is made from the cocoa beans which are rich in flavanols, a class of plant nutrients with antioxidant properties. Flavanols help protect plants from toxins in the environment. When people consume chocolate, they appear to benefit from these antioxidant properties as well.

Not all chocolate is created equal, though, says Taylor Schellhardt, medical nutrition therapist at Beebe Healthcare in Lewes. In fact, your favorite sweet treat may not be the best in terms of its health benefits.

Here are the different types of chocolate and how they rank:

Cocoa Powder

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This form is made from fermenting, roasting and crushing cocoa beans into a paste.  After the fat is removed, the remaining solids are ground into a fine powder. “Dutch” or European cocoa powders are processed with alkali, which can reduce the flavanol content. Naturally processed, unsweetened cocoa powder, however, is a great source of flavanols and is low in calories. Great for sprinkling over cereal or into coffee.

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is the healthiest of the three major types of chocolate. It boasts the highest cocoa content, therefore contains the most flavanols. The FDA has not yet established a standard of identity for dark chocolate, but the Cleveland Clinic says dark chocolate should contain at least 35 percent cocoa—the darker the better. Some varieties go as high as 90 percent. But there’s a trade-off: the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter the taste.

Milk Chocolate

Most adults may prefer milk chocolate, but when it comes to health benefits, it ranks behind cocoa powder and dark chocolate. The FDA requires that milk chocolate contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor, at least 3.39 percent milk fat, and at least 12 percent milk solids. Milk chocolate contains more fat and sugar than its darker counterpart and much less cocoa.

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White Chocolate

Not technically chocolate, white chocolate is made from cocoa fat, milk solids, sugar and other flavorings. It has no flavanols whatsoever.

Dietary Recommendations

Chocolate, like all other treats, should be consumer in moderation. “Just because flavonoids may have a health benefit, doesn’t give you a free pass to consume as much chocolate as you want,” says Schellhardt.

Indeed, despite its purported health benefits, chocolate has a dark side. Chocolate has a high sugar content, which can lead to obesity and tooth decay, and a 2008 study linked daily chocolate consumption with lower bone density in women.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School stress that though some observational studies have linked chocolate consumption to reductions in heart disease and dementia, they don’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship. In addition, any benefit is though to be due to the flavanols, not to the chocolate itself.

Experts conceded that if you’re going to indulge your sweet tooth, chocolate is a better choice than baked goods or sticky candies. So go ahead and enjoy those holiday treats, a 1.5-ounce serving a few times a week is fine. So is curling up with a steaming cup of hot cocoa in the cold days ahead.

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