Americans do love chocolate. In fact, each of us eats an average of 12 pounds of chocolate every year, most of it between meals. Fifty-two percent of the population reports that chocolate is their favorite flavor.
Recent studies have shown that a little chocolate is actually good for us. Chocolate’s benefits come from flavonoids, a type of health-boosting antioxidant. Dark chocolate has the greatest concentration of antioxidants. However, some studies indicate that milk in the chocolate may inhibit the absorption of the antioxidants and eliminate their health boosting potential.
Do you know your chocolates? Following is a brief description of the various types.
Milk chocolate contains chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, milk, sweeteners and flavorings. By FDA standards, it must contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and 12 percent milk solids. Milk chocolate should be eaten only as a treat because it has more sugar and milk than cocoa.
White chocolate contains fat from cocoa butter or other vegetable oils, sugar, milk and flavorings but no cocoa solids. Some “white chocolate” you buy is nothing more than sweetened solid vegetable oil, especially the kind used to coat other treats. To meet FDA standards, real white chocolate must contain a minimum of 20 percent cocoa butter, 14 percent milk solids, 3.5 percent milk fat and a maximum of 55 percent sweeteners. Because there is no cocoa in white chocolate, it does not have the benefits of dark chocolate and should be considered an occasional treat.
Dark chocolate contains a higher amount of cocoa solids and little to no milk. Although there is no FDA standard for dark chocolate, the cocoa solids usually range from 45 percent to 80 percent. Dark chocolate can be sweet, semisweet, bittersweet or unsweetened.
Unsweetened chocolate usually is called “baking chocolate.” It is pure chocolate liquor mixed with fat to make it solid.
Semisweet chocolate adds sugar to the chocolate liquor/cocoa butter mix. To be semisweet, it must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Semisweet dark chocolate chips usually contain 50 percent to 75 percent cocoa solids.
Bittersweet chocolate is 50 percent to 85 percent cocoa solids and less sugar than semisweet chocolate.
Many chocolate products now prominently display what percentage of cocoa solids or chocolate liquor they contain. Choose 60 percent or more cocoa solids to reap the health benefits of chocolate. Buy individually wrapped dark chocolate squares and limit yourself to one or two a day to help control calories.
Research suggests that when dark chocolate (>60 percent cocoa solids) is consumed in moderation, it may improve your health in the following ways.
Lower blood pressure: It helps the lining of blood vessels expand/contract better to control blood flow more effectively
Reduce bad cholesterol: Like the flavonoids in red wine, chocolate can help lower LDL cholesterol and provide heart protective benefits.
Page 2 of 2 - Increase blood flow to the heart: It helps the blood vessels expand/contract better.
Reduce platelet stickiness and the chance of blood clotting, reducing the risk of heart attack
Increase blood flow to the brain, which may improve cognitive function
Help with weight loss: Dark chocolate helps suppress appetite.
Help fight fatigue in people with chronic fatigue syndrome: increases neurotransmitters to the brain
Improve mood: boosts serotonin levels and triggers happy feelings
Protect against certain cancers: Antioxidants protect cells from damage.
Decrease insulin resistance
So, go ahead and enjoy your chocolate! Just be sure to choose plain dark chocolate and limit how much of it you eat. It still has calories, and too much will pack on the pounds, eliminating all those good benefits.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.