Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

Be Choosy about Chocolate

Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

— By Liza Barnes, Health Educator

A dessert. An antidepressant. A substitute for sex. Since its discovery thousands of years ago, chocolate has become many things to many people. The Mayan people crushed the seeds of the chocolate (cacao) tree and mixed them with spices to make a frothy beverage, which was consumed at social events and religious ceremonies. Chocolate was woven into many aspects of their culture—it appeared in much of their artwork and was even used as a method of currency.

Today, chocolate is used to satisfy a sweet tooth more than anything else. But recent research about the health benefits of chocolate may persuade you to explore the world of chocolate a little more. The findings suggest that the consumption of chocolate may help prevent high blood pressure, improve heart health, and provide a bounty of antioxidants. But all chocolate is not created equal, and not all types of chocolate offer these health benefits. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting your currency’s worth when you shop for a chocolate bar.

Concentration Counts
To get the health benefits of chocolate, choose dark varieties. The compounds that benefit your health (antioxidants and phenols) are in the cocoa solids. The more cocoa solids your chocolate has, the darker the chocolate will appear. But you can’t rely on looks or marketing alone since any chocolate can be labeled “dark,” even if it doesn’t contain a high concentration of cocoa. The first ingredient on the label should be cocoa, chocolate, or cocoa liquor. Choose a product that contains at least 70 percent cocoa. This percentage should be listed on the label.

Avoid the Milky Way
Most varieties of mass-marketed chocolate bars are made with milk, which gives the chocolate a creamy texture that most people enjoy. Unfortunately, this combination inhibits the absorption of the beneficial compounds in cocoa (as does drinking milk along with chocolate). In other words, if it contains milk (milk fat, lactose, whey and other milk derivatives), the chocolate no longer has health-enhancing benefits.

Cocoa Butter is Better
During processing, cocoa butter, the natural fat of the cocoa bean, is removed. When a high-quality chocolate bar is made from this processed cocoa, the manufacturer will add cocoa butter back in to the recipe. However, commercial manufacturing giants save money and extend the shelf life of their products by adding unhealthy partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to chocolate instead of cocoa butter. These companies save money at the expense of your health. Read labels and choose a chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not partially hydrogenated oils.

All Natural
A high-quality chocolate bar is fresh and naturally tastes good. Artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives aren’t necessary unless a bar falls short of these standards. Choose a chocolate that is free of unnecessary additives for a better, healthier product.

Look for Freshness
Make sure the chocolate bar you’re eating is fresh. Upon inspecting the bar, you should find a glossy surface and a dark color with reddish-black undertones. Chocolate that is stored improperly will have a visible “bloom,” which either looks like grayish-white blotches and streaks on the chocolate or causes the chocolate to feel rough. Exchange it for a fresh bar.

Beyond Bars
There are other ways to consume chocolate besides bars. In fact, a 2005 USDA study found that unsweetened cocoa powder contained the highest concentration of beneficial compounds of all chocolate products. However, as with chocolate bars, not all cocoa powder is created equal. Many cocoa powders are “Dutch processed” or “alkalized” to reduce their acidity, but this processing also reduces their antioxidants and phenols. Natural cocoa powder provides the most benefits.

But what is one to do with this bitter powder, bearing in mind that mixing it with milk will take away its health-enhancing properties? If you’re brave, you could make an unsweetened chocolate beverage by stirring a heaping teaspoon of the stuff into 8 ounces of boiling water. Drink it much like you drink coffee—or even mix it with your coffee, which provides its own set of antioxidants!

The Dark Side of Chocolate
When choosing a chocolate product, consider looking for fair trade and organic certifications. An ordinary chocolate bar sells for 60 cents, but the farmer who grew the cocoa receives about one penny of that. Chocolate is often grown using child and slave labor too. A Fair Trade certification guarantees that the farmers who grew the chocolate were paid a living wage for their labor, worked in a safe and healthy environment, and did not utilize forced or child labor.

Over 30 different pesticides are used when growing cocoa beans, which are one of the world’s most heavily sprayed crops. Certified Organic chocolate is made from cocoa plants that were not sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides, which could leave behind a residue in your chocolate.

Although your choice in chocolate bars can’t change the world, and should not replace other healthy foods, it can be a healthy treat if you choose wisely. Refer the following cheat sheet before your next trip to the chocolate shop:

Good for Your Health Leave it on the Shelf
“70% Dark Chocolate” “Milk chocolate”
Cocoa butter Partially hydrogenated oil
Cocoa liquor Natural or artificial color
Sugar or cane juice Corn syrup
Dairy-free Milk, milk fat, or lactose
Cocoa powder Dutch processed or Alkalized
Thick, tight wrapper Thin wrapper or exposed to light
Glossy, dark or smooth texture Blotchy, streaky or rough texture
Fair Trade and Organic Conventional (no distinction)

Article created on: 3/6/2007


6 thoughts on “Not All Chocolate is Created Equal”

  1. I do visit many blogs, yours really is outstanding.
    Interested in pushing equitable trading, I dedicate space on my website to fair trade purposes, on the home page as well as in the press articles section. Beautiful illustration you have here, “astraly correct, it forces insighting”.


  2. I was very pleased to read Liza’s article on dark chocolate. Her understanding on what to look for is
    very accurate. Since November I have enjoyed the benifits of dark chocolate and am amazed. Loose 10
    pounds while enjoying chocolate everyday, even over the Christmas Holidays?! Yes!! Develop uncracked
    skin, even in winter? Yes!! Improved bowel function?! Yes… Breathe better? Yes! Improved moods? Yes!
    Scientifically, cocoa contains over 1,200 constituants, phytonutrients which contain 2/3’s Flavonoids,
    which are powerful anti-flammatories. The Theobromine opens up the airways as a vasodialator. It’s also
    a great anti-histamine. Cocoa stimulates Seratonin and Dophamine, which prevents moodiness, especially
    for us women pms’ing. Cocoa increases blood flow and oxygenation to the derma layer of our skin. Energy
    levals soar as red blood cells are unclumped enabling them to receive oxygen. I could go on and on….
    I’m glad Liza said it’s very important to pick the right chocolate. Xocai which is distributed by
    people like me, is the very chocolate we all need. So thank you for your great article!


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