We Love Chocolate, But Is It Good for You?

Some of us like to have our chocolate and eat it, too. Whether in cookies, slathered on cakes, poured on top of ice cream, or eaten straight from a bar, chocolate is delicious. While we tend to think of chocolate as a Valentine’s Day gift or think more about it during American Heart Month, for chocoholics, chocolate is good at any time of the year. However, a big question looms: is chocolate good for you?

We consulted several sources on the subject – newsletters and articles on the subject from Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic, Prevention, Harvard, and The New York Times. The consensus was that if it’s dark chocolate, there are health benefits; milk or white chocolate, less so.

But before you go on a shopping binge, check out the pros and cons of consuming chocolate so you can make an informed decision about what to buy and how much of the delicious stuff to consume. After that, we’ve got a couple of recipes you may want to try.

Some facts about chocolate

Made from cocoa, which is derived from the beans of the cacao tree (cacao: “food of the gods”), chocolate gets its name from the Aztec word “xocoatl.” For millennia, the bean was used in Central American countries to make a cocoa drink as well as medicines, rituals, food, and currency.

In and of itself, cocoa is bitter. The chocolate products we enjoy today evolved over time – millennia, in fact, as flavorings such as corn, chilies, honey, vanilla, agave syrup, milk products, and sugar were added in processing.  It was only in the last few hundred years that chocolate became a worldwide phenomenon.

Overall, there are three forms of processed chocolate – milk, white, and dark. Of the three, dark chocolate is healthier to consume because it contains a higher number of powerful antioxidants – flavanols, which fight inflammation and protect against cell damage caused by free radicals. Flavanols also are related to the production of nitric oxide which relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow, thus lowering blood pressure.

Dark chocolate usually contains between 50% and 90% cocoa solids, whereas milk chocolate has between 10% and 50%. Therefore, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, as those found in dark chocolate, the more flavonoids and the lower amount of sugar content.

So much for the chemistry lesson. Now, let’s look at what the experts say about how dark chocolate can benefit you.

Chocolate’s Health Benefits

  1. Besides more flavanols, dark chocolate contains iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and phosphorous – all important minerals.
  2. Dark chocolate is considered non-dairy, which is good news for those with dairy product sensitivities.
  3. Dark chocolate is high in fiber. Studies have shown that snacking on chocolate a couple of hours before a meal can depress one’s appetite and lead to a reduction in food consumption by as much as 15%.
  4. The antioxidants in dark chocolate have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of clotting, and increase blood circulation to the heart. In other words, they can help reduce cardiovascular disease and stroke. Flavanols also increase blood flow to the brain, and boost one’s athletic performance because they increase the production of nitric oxide in the blood.
  5. Dark chocolate can help to reduce stress as it reduces cortisol, a stress hormone.
  6. The flavanols in dark chocolate also help to balance the immune system.
  7. And surprisingly, flavanols in dark chocolate help combat diabetes, as they help the body to use insulin more efficiently, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.

Chocolate’s downsides

As with anything else, eat too much chocolate, even if it’s dark chocolate, and you will gain weight. Dark chocolate contains fat and, therefore, calories, so check nutritional information on labels carefully.

Dark chocolate also contains caffeine. Two ounces (about 4-6 little squares from a larger bar) of 70% dark chocolate contain about 50-60 milligrams of caffeine versus 100-200 milligrams found in an eight-ounce cup of coffee.

How much of this delicious food should you consume? Our best advice is to eat it in moderation.

The following recipes – courtesy of The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook – are a fine finish to any meal.

An easy sundae: dark chocolate fudge over Ice cream:  (Makes 2 cups) 

Dark Chocolate Fudge Sauce 

1 ¼ cups sugar

2/3 cup whole or 2 percent low-fat milk

¼ teaspoon table salt

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine (do not use chocolate bits)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and chilled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Heat sugar, milk, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, whisking gently until the sugar has dissolved and liquid starts to bubble around the edges of the saucepan. Reduce heat to low; add cocoa powder and whisk until smooth.
  2. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in the chocolate pieces. Let stand for 3 minutes. Whisk sauce until smooth and chocolate is fully melted. Add butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Then, whisk in the vanilla.
  3. Pour the fudge sauce over scoops of your favorite ice cream.

Note: the sauce can be refrigerated for up to a month. Reheat gently in a microwave or on your stovetop, taking care that it is warmed and pourable, but not hot and bubbling.)

Low-Fat Fudge Brownies   (Makes 16 brownies)

Note: Take care not to overbake or the brownies will have the consistency of cake rather than a fudgy brownie.

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon table salt

2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, chopped (do not use chocolate bits)

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons of low-fat sour cream

1 tablespoon of chocolate syrup

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

1 large whole egg

1 large egg white

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and adjust oven rack to middle position. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with 2 pieces of foil or parchment paper and lightly grease.
  2. Whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Melt the chocolate and butter in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Set aside to cool for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar, sour cream, chocolate syrup, vanilla, whole egg and egg white.
  3. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the dry ingredients into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  4. Transfer the batter to the baking pan and smooth the top with the spatula.
  5. Bake about 20-25 minutes until slightly puffed and a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs. It should not be entirely dry. Remove from the oven.
  6. Allow to cool for about an hour, then lift carefully with two wide metal spatulas from the pan onto a plate. Just when you ready to serve, cut the brownies into two-inch squares. Refrigerate the remaining brownies for up to 3 days.


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