Among the favorite indulgences of the holiday season is chocolate in all its many forms, from peppermint-studded bark and tinsel-wrapped kisses to white chocolate coffee drinks, with a thousand varieties of bonbons, candies, cookies, and cakes besides. Who’s going to pass up a thick, creamy cup of hot chocolate when the weather turns frigid? And those treats now seem even more enticing because science suggests that cacao, the tropical bean from which chocolate is made, contains beneficial phytonutrients whose effects may enhance cardiovascular health, reduce insulin resistance, improve cognitive function, and even make weight loss easier, according to various reports.
But science also clearly warns us, with even more certainty, that many people annually gain weight between Halloween and the New Year — and that most forms of chocolate also contain sugar and lots of calories. So the question is how to enjoy this remarkable confection — whose genus name Theobroma means “food of the gods” — and its potential benefits, without damaging your health or expanding your waistline.
As with so many substances that we consume, the bane — or the boon — is in the dose.
You don’t have to look far to find media hype about the health benefits of chocolate, especially the darkest varieties. Yet while it’s true that certain natural chemicals in cacao — namely flavanols, flavonoids, and antioxidants — offer health benefits, nobody recommends switching to an all-chocolate diet.
Researchers believe antioxidants help protect against the damage caused by normal bodily functions such as breathing, and against contaminants like cigarette smoke. Without adequate antioxidants, oxidation occurs and can result in increased LDL cholesterol – the bad kind that causes arterial plaque.
Flavonoids are found in any number of foods besides chocolate, such as fruits and vegetables. Foods high in these chemicals boost antioxidants.
Flavanols also possess antioxidant properties and may be beneficial to the cardio-vascular system by contributing to lower blood pressure, improving blood flow to the heart and brain, and decreasing the sticky characteristics of blood platelets that cause them to form clots. But keep in mind that cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea, and red wine are also high in flavanols.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain levels of the beneficial chemicals high enough to do you any good. Before natural cocoa becomes the candy, drink, or flavor we love to eat, it goes through lots of processing – the more processing, the fewer beneficial chemicals. (If you’ve ever tasted natural cocoa, unsweetened, you already know that it’s very strong and bitter, and not suitable for dessert.)
“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.”
A study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that cocoa’s flavanols may increase blood flow to the brain and thus improve some memory functions. But even if this proves to be true, it seems unlikely that cocoa alone will be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Such conditions are highly complex and their negative effects probably can’t be attributed to a single cause. Instead, the hope is that studies of cacao will lead to treatments for common age-related memory loss.
So what’s the healthiest choice for your holiday chocolate fix? Skip the chocolate cake and ice cream and opt for dark chocolate — in particular, bars with more than 60 percent cacao, which contain proportionately less sugar and fat. Delicious as milk chocolate is, it also contains much more fat and sugar than the dark varieties. You’ll find that a small bite of really high quality dark chocolate, eaten slowly and deliberately, can be very satisfying — and virtually guilt-free.