It’s February, and thanks to Valentine’s Day, it’s prime time for chocolate. But even without an official holiday, there’s something about winter that screams “chocolate!” Perhaps because it brightens the mood during the dark days of winter. Or the rich and complex flavor goes with cold weather? August and chocolate? Not so much, unless perhaps you live in the southern hemisphere, where August is winter. Or you like S’Mores. A website dedicated to holidays and observances lists some 72 chocolate-related “days” each year, which doesn’t even include the official months or weeks dedicated to chocolate. Everything from National Chocolate Fondue Day to National S’Mores Day (in August!) to National Creme Filled Chocolates Day (Valentine’s Day).
Last week, an article about wine got me thinking about chocolate. Not because they go together. Rather, because both now come with health claims. As if we needed an excuse to consume either of these. But we live in a peculiar culture. We can’t just choose to eat something for flavor or enjoyment; we need to sanitize the indulgence with a Health Halo.
The wine article tried to make sense of the claim that red wine is healthy, or at least healthier than white wine. Red wine contains a polyphenol called resveratrol which allegedly creates health benefits. Well, in a test tube anyway. A review of research, published several years ago, found that 75% of ingested resveratrol was excreted. The take away message: just because a food contains some allegedly healthful substance doesn’t mean that substance provides any benefits once you consume it.
Back to chocolate
Like wine, chocolate has polyphenols linked to health, in this case, flavanols. Unlike wine, the flavanols in chocolate are linked to improved cardiovascular health. However, you’d have to eat vast amounts of dark chocolate every single day in order to achieve a meaningful health benefit, wreaking havoc with dietary balance. Even then, the chocolate you choose might not have significant flavanol content. According to the MARS Cocoa Science site, flavanols are easily destroyed when cocoa beans are processed into edible chocolate. Who knows what the actual flavanol content of a chocolate product is?
Best chocolate for flavanols
Flavanol content of chocolate products varies widely. This list of products is ranked by likely highest to lowest content:
- Cocoa powder
- Cacao nibs (cracked bits of dried cocoa beans)
- 100% dark chocolate (ex: unsweetened baking chocolate)
- various dark-to-semi-sweet varieties of chocolate (such as 80%, 60%, etc.)
- milk chocolate
- chocolate syrup
Needless to say, flavanols in chocolate truffles will vary according to type of chocolate coating and whether the filling contains any chocolate. Foods that don’t count: Oreo cookies, S’Mores, chocolate ice cream, etc.
- Chocolate is vegetarian. Pure chocolate (no added milk) is vegan.
- In addition to the flavanols, unsweetened chocolate has significant iron, magnesium, fiber, zinc and potassium. But when you add sugar and milk, the nutritional content is diluted.
Enjoy chocolate anyway!
If you need an excuse to eat chocolate or drink hot cocoa, technically you can cite health benefits of flavanols. Just don’t expect the amount of flavanols to work miracles. Better to enjoy small amounts of chocolate occasionally as a treat, whatever form you choose. If you’re into the strongly bitter flavor of cacao nibs, good for you. but if you prefer chocolate truffles (like I do), enjoy one because it tastes lovely, not because you believe it will prevent a heart attack.