By: Ali Rahimi
Cocoa is the key to unlocking the health benefits of chocolate. Cocoa is the powdered form of chocolate, and is eventually processed into the chocolate bars we consume. Cocoa contains flavonols, powerful antioxidants, which may decrease the risk of morbidity caused by coronary heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Furthermore, researchers suggest there is an inverse association between cocoa consumption and incidence of Type II diabetes. Additionally, it was found that consumption of cocoa flavonols improve blood pressure and cognitive function in the elderly. Studies point toward the resounding benefits of cocoa flavonols on human health. Thus, the more solid cocoa a chocolate product has, the better it is for you. For this reason, dark chocolate is the healthiest type of chocolate since it contains the highest cocoa content. Despite its bitter taste, dark chocolate is a much healthier alternative to milk and white chocolate.
In addition to processing, additional ingredients added to many of the commercial chocolates may cancel out the potential health benefits of cocoa flavonols. The media often misconstrues the nutritional qualities of chocolate. Dr. Eric Ding, a scientist from the Department of Nutrition from the Harvard School of Public health, says it best: “‘The media snatch up a cocoa story and say, eating chocolate is good for you, go out and eat chocolate bars. That’s not it.’” The health benefits of chocolate reported in studies are often generalized to all chocolates. A Snickers or Twix does not have the same nutritional quality as a bar of dark chocolate consisting of 75% cocoa. The added ingredients in commercial chocolates, such as the sugar, nougat, toffee, etc. decrease the nutritional benefits that the cocoa flavonols provide. Thus, while cocoa flavonols may promote insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance, the added sugar reverses these potential benefits.
The truth about chocolate is that it may have health benefits depending on the nature of the chocolate. The more “pure” it is, that is, the more cocoa the chocolate consists of, the higher the nutritional quality, and the greater the protective effects. More processed chocolates lose the benefits of cocoa flavonols, and can worsen health due to added ingredients such as additional sugar. The verdict is that while the essence of chocolate, cocoa, has been shown to have health benefits, the processed chocolate products we consume lose their nutritional value and should be avoided. If you are hungry, don't grab a Snickers. If you want to see the health benefits of chocolate, you should stick to small amounts (no more than 1-2 oz.) of dark chocolate highly comprised of natural cocoa and its flavonols.