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Is All Chocolate Created Equal?

Posted By Mark Sisson On July 11, 2008 @ 7:01 am In Aging,Carbs,Diet,Health,How To,Nutrition | 92 Comments

My wife and I tend to receive a lot of chocolate, usually as holiday or dinner party gifts. Friends and business associates know we’re not dessert people but that we indulge in chocolate and red wine on occasion (i.e. those Sensible Vices [7]). As a result, I’ve gotten to try a lot of the best chocolates out there (as well as a few duds). My wife and I each have our running lists of favorites. Hers has a couple Belgian varieties as well as some quality stateside organics. As for me, the more bitter the better. Green and Black’s makes an 85% that I consider kind of my “staple” choice, but there are a lot of good ones out there.

As many of you know from my site or news stories, cocoa is credited with an impressive array of health benefits: reducing the instance of blood clots, lowering blood pressure, and helping prevent cancer. It’s all in the anti-oxidants, specifically compounds known as phenolic phytochemicals or flavonoids. Some studies have shown that cocoa contains considerably more flavonoids [8] than either green tea or red wine (but I’d add that red wine has resveratrol going for it as well).

Yet, I’d caution that not all chocolate is created equal. A Hershey milk chocolate bar may feed your sweet tooth, but that’s about it. (Probably not much surprise there.) First off, it’s ultimately the cocoa content that matters. The rest of what you find in chocolate (e.g. sugars, milk solids, etc.) is filler for our purposes and (in the case of sugars) only undoes the good. The higher the cocoa content, the better. This means dark chocolate will be better than milk chocolate, but what you’re really looking for is at least a “bittersweet” variety (50%+ cocoa content). I’d recommend shooting for 70% cocoa or more. Be sure to check the label. The best option (though not the tastiest) is unsweetened chocolate (100% cocoa), which is called chocolate liquor and actually made from roasted cocoa nibs.

Processing procedures, it seems, can impact the anti-oxidant activity [9] of cocoa/chocolate. Processing that includes very high heat or alkalization seems to negatively alter the phenolic profile the most. Go for higher quality chocolates, and avoid Dutch-processed cocoa for these reasons.

Also, you might be tired of hearing this, but the fact is organic is better on this front as well. There was some hullabaloo just a few years back about high lead content in chocolate [10]. The matter was never entirely settled or the source(s) identified in most cases. (I don’t believe in flying off the handle about this kind of thing, but it does offer another reason for wise moderation.) The organic label promises more oversight along the growing, harvesting and processing routes. Though it’s not a hard guarantee, I’d recommend the bit of extra assurance. If nothing else, you know you’re eating a chocolate bar made from cocoa beans that weren’t sprayed to oblivion with who knows what.

For those of you who despair at giving up milk chocolate, I’d suggest another alternative – a cup of cocoa. I’m obviously not talking the Swiss Miss, Nestle rabbit, or Ovaltine mixes of our childhoods. (Hey, at least we survived.) I mean the old fashioned milk and cocoa powder (or melted baking squares). As you know, the Primal Blueprint generally sidelines milk, but I consider it (especially organic and whole) a perfectly reasonable option for the purpose of chocolate indulgence. (It’s hardly the worst thing you could warm up with on a cold winter’s night.) A study [11] out of Cornell University suggests that natural cocoa even provides the most anti-oxidant power per serving when compared with other forms of chocolate. An added plus:it’s one way to get the benefit of cocoa without the added sugar that dark chocolate bars have to some degree. Can’t imagine doing cocoa without sugar? If you’re including very little sweet food in your diet, you’ll be surprised how your tastebuds adapt. On the rare holiday occasions I indulge, the organic whole milk I use tastes sweet enough.

The bottom line for making the most of your chocolate indulgences: go organic, look for 70% or more of cocoa content, and find a brand or brands that complement your favorite red wine, fruit or coffee. I’m all about healthy, but an indulgence should feel – and taste – like a real extravagance.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your suggestions and feedback.

f10n4 [12], jypsygen [13], Jen Chan [14] Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Original Sensible Vices [15]

Sensible Vices: Round 2 [16]

The Art of Compromise [17]

How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day [18]

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[8] cocoa contains considerably more flavonoids: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/jafcau/2003/51/i25/abs/jf0344385.html

[9] can impact the anti-oxidant activity: http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-7364540/Significant-changes-occur-in-phenolic.html#abstract

[10] high lead content in chocolate: http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/118/chocolate

[11] study: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/jafcau/2006/54/i11/abs/jf060290o.html

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[18] How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day: http://www.marksdailyapple.com../../chocolate-and-wine/

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