Ah Valentine’s Day and we get to hear all about how chocolate is so good for us – it’s loaded with healthy antioxidants and is the nectar of the gods. Well, actually those who were once sacrificed to the gods were given chocolate mixed in blood before their hearts were ripped out, but I digress. So how good for you is chocolate? Well, that depends exactly on the type of chocolate you’re eating and how often you consume it too. After all, stuffing your face with chocolate GU isn’t going to provide any health benefits, even if you eat enough to get the level of free radical fighting phytonutrients comparable to some blueberries. But hey, I like chocolate too so read on and I’ll share the love.
What Makes Chocolate Beneficial?
When it comes to the benefits of chocolate, it basically all comes down to one thing – the percentage of cacao. The percentage of cacao is derived from the cacao bean – which includes the cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and the chocolate liquor which is produced from dried ground beans and sometimes called cocoa mass. By the way cacao refers to the name of the chocolate tree (Theobroma cacao), its pods and the beans inside whereas cocoa refers to the by-products of the cacao bean – the cocoa power and cocoa butter. I’m probably going to confuse the two somewhere in this article; essentially there really is no difference once the actual product is in your hands (and mouth).
The higher percentage of cacao equals a higher amount of flavonoids (also known as bioflavonoids). Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants founds in fruits, veges, herbs, and other plant-based foods. Antioxidants help protect us against damage caused by free radicals as a result of toxins from our environment and lifestyle (mental stress, poor diet, etc.). Flavanols (spelled with two ‘a’s), are a class of flavonoids that are high in tea, red wine, and cocoa. They are a type of antioxidant that are very beneficial to blood vessels. They keep arteries flexible and can even reduce your blood pressure (if it’s high). But don’t go crazy here now – chocolate also has sugar added to various amounts depending on the type you’re eating, and sugar increases inflammation, which can be a problem for blood vessels and your blood pressure.
So as flavanols are a subgroup of flavonoids, epicatechins are a subgroup of flavanols. The catechins make up what are called proanthocyanidins, also known as OPCs (oligomeric proanthocyanidins) – these are kick-ass antioxidants. Proanthocyanidins can be found in many plants, such as apples, acai, cinnamon, grape seed and grape skin, red wines, bilberry, cranberry, black currant, green tea, black tea, and others. Oh yeah – and cacao beans. Actually, cacao beans contain the highest concentrations, but it all depends on how they were grown and processed. Two tablespoons of natural cocoa has more antioxidant capacity than 3 ½ cups of green tea, ¾ cup of blueberries and 1 1/3 glasses of red wine. Raw cocoa is ideal since flavanols degrade during cooking (high temp) and the commonly used alkalizing processes. Flavanols are bitter so most chocolate goes through processing steps that remove a lot of these beneficial antioxidants.
As cocoa makes its way from bean to cocoa powder and chocolate, the concentration of antioxidant compounds can be affected by a variety of biological and processing conditions. Genetics can vary greatly between cacao trees, thus affecting the concentration of antioxidants four-fold from one bean to another. Fermentation of fresh cacao beans also tends to decrease antioxidant content as does roasting of cacao beans and treatment of cocoa powder with alkali.
Processing with alkali is called dutching – it breaks down the flavanol antioxidants naturally found in cocoa and chocolate. The extent to which the flavanols are lost is related to how heavily the cocoa or chocolate is dutched. Dutched cocoa can be identified on the ingredient panel of a food when labeled as “cocoa processed with alkali.” Unfortunately, food labels do not state the extent of alkalization of a cocoa powder, so you should choose a natural cocoa for maximum antioxidants.
Cocoa butter is obtained from whole cacao beans, which are fermented, roasted, and then separated from their hulls. About 54 – 58% of the residue is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is one of the most stable fats known, a quality that coupled with antioxidants naturally prevents rancidity. Cocoa butter has a high content of saturated fats derived from stearic and palmitic acids. These are beneficial types of saturated fats. Stearic acid is also found in grass fed beef and palmitic is high in dairy fat (butter). Around 30% of the fat is also oleic, which is the same monounsaturated fat in olive oil. The moisturizing abilities of cocoa butter are frequently recommended for prevention of stretch marks, treatment of chapped lips, and as a daily moisturizer. I like to break it up and put it right in a smoothie (see photo). If you’ve built a good aerobic base and are burning fat the majority of the day (at work and when training), then these fats will keep you well fueled.
What’s Not To Love About Chocolate?
Other than the sugar (depending on the percentage of cocoa you’re eating), the two other compounds in chocolate that tend to give it a bad rap are the caffeine and theobromine.
Caffeine, as well all know, is a stimulant that is high in coffee, teas, guarana, yerba mate, and many energy drinks. For plants, caffeine is a natural insecticide. Caffeine as well as theobromine, paraxanthine and theophylline, are part of the methylxanthine family – psychoactive stimulants. Caffeine can be beneficial to some degree when you’re racing, but excess amounts can backfire and cause harm.
Symptoms of too much caffeine (too much ingested or impaired breakdown of it) include: nervousness, irritability, panic attacks, OCD, ADD, phobias, anxiety, muscle twitching, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, and digestive problems. But hey – there really isn’t a whole lot of caffeine in chocolate – even the pure unprocessed stuff. A typical 3.5oz bar of 70% cocoa is going to have roughly the same amount of caffeine as a cup (6-7oz) of coffee. If you’re eating 70% or higher chocolate, you’re probably not going to eat the whole bar. If you are, well you might have a problem. If you’re using <70% cocoa (not recommended) then there is even less caffeine in there so you’d have to eat more to get more caffeine. But you’d never do that, right? – Waayy too much sugar.
So what’s that theobromine? Theobromine is what’s known as an alkaloid and is a stimulant to the central nervous system. It acts as a vasodilator (a blood vessel widener), a diuretic (urination aid), and heart stimulant. Theobromine has also been identified as one of the compounds contributing to chocolate’s reputed role as an aphrodisiac as well as the compound that makes a person crave chocolate (could be the sugar too).
Some people don’t break down theobromines (or caffeine) well in their liver so they can develop toxicity symptoms from chocolate and tea. These symptoms can range from headaches to fatigue to painful “locked-up” joints. Animals don’t break these alkaloids down well at all; theobromine is what will kill your dog, cat, or horse if they eat too much chocolate.
Enjoy Good Chocolate
You should shoot for chocolate that is at least 70% or higher cocoa; 80% is ideal. Milk chocolate is only around 10% cocoa (such as a Hershey’s bar) and semisweet is around 35%. The lower the percent of cocoa, the less antioxidants and the more sugar it contains. You should also look for Fair Trade chocolate. Fair Trade practices ensure that cacao farmers, (who typically live in developing countries in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia,) receive a guaranteed minimum price for their products, enjoy safer working conditions, and employ sustainable growing methods that benefit their own health as well as the planet. Slavery still exists in many cacao farms, especially in Africa, and child labor/slavery is a huge problem. Currently no organic cocoa beans are coming from Ivory Coast, so organic chocolate is unlikely to be tainted by slavery (or pesticides & herbicides).
So, it comes down to this: Whether it’s a special holiday like Valentine’s Day, Easter, or your birthday, chocolate can be good for your health, or bad for your health. Eat Organic Fair Trade chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa and not processed with alkali. And don’t go crazy on it. If you’re craving chocolate, you’re probably craving the stimulants in there (caffeine or theobromine) and you should look into why you need that stimulation – you’re probably under more stress than your body can handle. Training too hard? If you can’t handle the taste of “rich” chocolate, especially 80%, then you’re most likely dealing with a sugar sensitivity – a sweet tooth that needs to be dealt with. Look into the Paleo Diet and the Two Week Test; (yeah, after Valentine’s Day of course).