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Why you NEED Chocolate
by Alice Lesch Kelly, Prevention
Feb 5, 2008

It can heal your heart and mind — but you have to eat the right kind. Here's what to avoid, what to indulge in

If it hasn't occurred to you to toss chocolate shavings into a salad, shake cocoa powder over a bowl of popcorn, or serve chicken with a savory chocolate mole sauce, now might be a good time to ask yourself why. Scientists are finding that chocolate — or, more specifically, cocoa powder made from ground, defatted cocoa beans — contains compounds that have the potential to protect against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

Cocoa beans contain substantial amounts of antioxidants, dietary substances that mop up free radicals. (The cell damage they cause can lead to cancer-triggering mutations or blood-vessel scarring that accelerates heart problems.) Disease-fighting antioxidants are also present in blueberries, kale, spinach, tea, red wine, and grape juice. But chocolate is a particularly potent source; ounce for ounce, dark chocolate has five times as many antioxidants as blueberries.

Food scientists are no longer shy about praising chocolate, and not just as a dip for strawberries. Several studies have demonstrated that antioxidants in chocolate — known as flavonols — help lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol while boosting "good" HDL cholesterol.

Flavonols seem to ease inflammation, opening blood vessels and improving blood flow. These antioxidants can prevent platelets from adhering to the lining of blood vessels, inhibit blood clotting, and help prevent plaque formation in the arteries, explains Carl L. Keen, PhD, chairman of the nutrition department at the University of California, Davis. "The science is compelling. I think it's a good idea to include flavonol-rich foods such as chocolate in your diet," Keen says.

And like a quality bar of Valrhona, the research keeps getting better. A recent Italian study confirmed that dark chocolate can decrease blood pressure; it also revealed that the dark stuff may help prevent type 2 diabetes by encouraging hormones to transport sugar from the blood into cells for fuel. In another study, published in March, soccer players in Argentina who ate 3.7 ounces of milk chocolate every day for 2 weeks had improved markers of cardiovascular health, including lower blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol than soccer players who ate white chocolate (which contains few flavonols).

In April, Georgetown University researchers reported that when human breast cancer cells were treated with pentamer — yet another antioxidant found in cocoa — it interrupted the rapid growth that can lead to tumors. It's too early to tell whether pentamer would act the same way in the body as it behaves in a test tube, but if it does, it could have potential as a cancer treatment.

Before you blow next month's grocery budget at Godiva, just remember that the stuff is high in calories. To get the biggest health (and flavor) bang for your buck, you really have to eat the right kind. Happily, the government has been on the job to determine which chocolate is the best. A recent study by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service revealed the antioxidant content in various types, and in April, results were presented at a major science conference. The research revealed that the more cocoa powder the chocolate contains, the more antioxidants you're getting. Here's how the USDA analysis ranks chocolate products, along with some of the healthiest recipes that deliver a flavorful and nutritious punch:

Natural Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
To make chocolate, a manufacturer crushes roasted, fermented cocoa beans, or nibs, into a liquid called chocolate liquor. The liquor can be pressed to separate out its fat (cocoa butter). What remains is a cocoa "cake" (also known as cocoa solids) that can be ground up to become natural unsweetened cocoa powder. This has the highest level of cocoa flavonols because it's the least processed. Also, because the fat has been removed and it contains no extra ingredients such as sugar, it's the healthiest form of chocolate you can find. But it tastes bitter, so you're not about to eat it by the spoonful. Hershey's Cocoa is probably the best known and is fine for everyday use. For a treat, try Scharffen Berger Natural Cocoa Powder (Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker).

To include natural unsweetened cocoa powder in your diet, sprinkle it into coffee, yogurt, or cereal; stir it into batters for banana or zucchini bread; or use it to make quick, delicious hot chocolate.

Unsweetened Baking Chocolate
This is the cooled, hardened chocolate liquor that still contains cocoa butter. "Unsweetened is fine when you're baking it into things because you generally have some sweetener to counteract that bitter taste," says Carole Bloom, a pastry chef who specializes in chocolate and is the author of eight cookbooks. "It's not something you would eat straight out of hand unless you're a real chocolate aficionado."

Unsweetened baking chocolate gives a deep, rich chocolate taste to brownies, cookies, and other baked goods. If you're eating it for health reasons, look for recipes such as Bloom's chocolate nut biscotti, which is low in fat and also contains Dutch cocoa powder (see below for more on this form). Try Baker's Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Squares or Ghirardelli Unsweetened Chocolate Baking Bar.

Alkalinized or Dutch Cocoa Powder
Natural cocoa powder has a somewhat bitter, acidic taste. In the 19th century, Dutch chocolate makers discovered that they could treat the powder with alkaline salts to tone down the bitterness. "It softens the natural acid flavor of cocoa," Bloom says. "It also tends to darken the color — and it rounds off the flavor." However, Dutch cocoa has a lower antioxidant count than natural cocoa because the alkali process destroys some of the flavonols. If you're looking for Dutch cocoa, check the label — it will say Dutch process, alkali added, or European style.

To include Dutch cocoa in your diet, sprinkle it into hot or cold cereal, mix it with a little confectioners' sugar to dust onto sponge cake instead of frosting, or use it to make a smooth, intensely chocolate sorbet. Hershey's European Style Dutch Processed Cocoa is available in some grocery stores. Or try Valrhona Cocoa Powder, which is Dutch processed. You can find it at Chocosphere, a great source for all things chocolate related.

Dark Chocolate
We all know what this is — the yummy stuff sweetened with sugar that we eat in bars. The sugar displaces some of the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, so dark has less fat than baking chocolate (but also fewer antioxidants). Savor it one square at a time, treating it as a mini vacation rather than just a snack break.

"Good-quality chocolate should begin to melt when you put it on your tongue, giving a velvety mouth feel," Bloom says. "Don't be in a hurry. If you savor it, you'll be satisfied with a smaller amount." When shopping for dark chocolate, check the label for the percentage of chocolate liquor (manufacturers are not required to list the percentage of cocoa, but several have begun to do so in response to consumer interest); the more chocolate liquor it contains, the more flavonols. About 70% is a good amount — that's roughly what you'd find in a bittersweet dark bar; semisweet contains around 60%.

Melted dark chocolate is also a delicious dip for nuts (cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans, etc.) and fresh or dried fruits (pears, apples, pineapple, apricots).

The Rest of the Pack
Semisweet chocolate is dark chocolate with added cocoa butter and sugar. Although it is considered a kind of dark chocolate, the extra ingredients don't leave much room for flavonols.

Milk chocolate has the lowest levels of antioxidants because it is made with milk, sugar, and other ingredients in addition to chocolate liquor. "As you dilute it more and more, the good stuff gets pushed out," says James M. Harnly, PhD, research chemist at the USDA Food Composition Lab.

Chocolate candy bars
Eat them for the taste, not for your heart. Chocolate is just one of many ingredients in these bars. Take away the nuts, sugar, raisins, nougat, caramel, and other ingredients, and all you have is a bit of chocolate — mostly milk chocolate, at that.

White chocolate
This didn't even make the USDA's list. Although it contains cocoa butter, the fat from the cocoa bean, white chocolate contains few of cocoa's flavonol-rich solids

Get the Good Stuff
Flavonol content can vary widely among chocolate products. According to Harold Schmitz, PhD, director of science at Mars Inc., a chocolate manufacturer, how the cocoa beans are grown, picked, fermented, transported, and processed can all reduce flavonol levels. Mars is trying to remedy this with CocoaVia, a line of chocolate products made with Cocoapro, its own specially processed cocoa that is engineered to be high in flavonols. "It's the first cocoa product designed to taste great and overtly make a contribution to heart health," Schmitz says. Cocoapro is used in Mars' Dove Dark chocolate, and independent studies have shown that 1 1/3 ounces a day of Dove Dark delivers cardiovascular benefits. Just remember: That amount also packs 200 calories.


I can't eat dark chocolate at all. It sends my anxiety sky-rocketing.

I'm actually not eating chocolate at all, these past few weeks, and it does seem to be making a difference, I'm much calmer.


I can't eat dark chocolate at all. It sends my anxiety sky-rocketing.

I'm actually not eating chocolate at all, these past few weeks, and it does seem to be making a difference, I'm much calmer.
I believe the darker the chocolate,the more caffeine

I was the same with coffee.I had just one cup a day but decided to cut it out..Last week I had a cup during breakfast with some friends and felt terrible the rest of the day

Daniel E.
dark chocolate has five times as many antioxidants as blueberries.
To include natural unsweetened cocoa powder in your diet, sprinkle it into coffee, yogurt, or cereal; stir it into batters for banana or zucchini bread; or use it to make quick, delicious hot chocolate.

I'm going to combine the blueberries with the yogurt and cocoa and report my results :)


Dr. Meg, Global Moderator, Practitioner
I love dark chocolate... the darker the better. It's nice that it has some medicinal value in addition to its great taste :)


Chocolate and Coffee makes me hyperish!! Almost everyday I drink a glass of coffee while chocolates well.. only sometime cuz ones I like quiet expensive. Hmm, I think I have forgot the taste of dark chocolate... :/


Account Closed
I love expensive chocolate too rosedragon - my reasoning is that they are better for me. My story and I am sticking to it. :D
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