All chocolate does not have the same health benefits

Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?

The health benefits of chocolate depend on more than just its color.

With Halloween sneaking up on us, it seems a good time to say a few words about the health benefits of chocolate. First a disclaimer: I love dark chocolate and eat it regularly. But I am not going to defend my habit by making up facts. The science stands on its own: Chocolate has many health benefits!

But like any other plant food rich in nutrients, the health benefits are only there if the food is grown and prepared properly. And that’s what’s missing from all the stories about the health benefits of chocolate. How is the chocolate made?

Here’s a little primer.

Chocolate comes from seeds found within the fruit of the cacao tree. Once the seeds, or cocoa beans, are harvested from the pod, they are fermented, dried, and roasted. Next the shells are removed and the beans are cracked into pieces called chocolate nibs. Some nibs are sold for cooking and baking, but most are ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor.

Chocolate liquor is processed to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter. The cocoa solids are more commonly known as cocoa powder, a bitter tasting, low fat baking ingredient. Cocoa butter is a pale-yellow, solid vegetable fat with a mild flavor. It is used to make toiletries, such as body lotion, and pharmaceuticals in addition to chocolate candy we know and love.

To make dark chocolate, the cocoa powder and butter are recombined in various ratios along with sugar, the emulsifier lecithin and sometimes vanilla. Milk solids are added to make milk chocolate. That mixture is then conched, or mechanically mixed, at various temperatures for up to 78 hours to develop the taste, texture and creamy consistency. A final melting and cooling process called tempering insures the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the chocolate.

At this point, those nutrient rich cacao beans – assuming they were grown under ideal conditions and harvested at their peak of ripeness – have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, cracked, mashed, liquefied, separated, recombined with other ingredients, refined, conched and tempered.

Do you get my point?

Cocoa beans are rich source of cocoa flavanols, naturally occurring compounds that have been shown to improve circulation, heart function and cognition among other things. But when used to make chocolate, those cocoa beans are put through a lot.

At present there is no way to know the flavanol content of the chocolate you buy, no matter what percent cocoa it contains. Consequently it is not possible to make any recommendations about how much chocolate you should eat to get certain health benefits. And it is unlikely chocolate will ever be “prescribed” in that way. percent cocoa

So my advice is this: Whenever you eat chocolate, be sure you pick the one that tastes best to you!



Goals for Food Day matter every day of the year

Registered Dietitian’s Food Day Pledge Takes Aim at What’s Wrong With Most Advice

Food Day Pledge from registered dietitian lists 10 Things she will not do when giving food advice

Today is Food Day, a day to promote “healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.” This I support. But some of the lofty ideas, biased language and unsupportable premises offered by the promoters I do not.

For example, the 6 Food Day Principles strive to both limit subsidies to agribusiness and alleviate hunger, even though you need the first to first to accomplish the second. The official Food Day cookbook, Eat Real, is described as a collection of delicious, healthful, easy-to-prepare recipes, yet includes “Braised Kohlrabi with Fennel & Leeks” and “Yogurt Panna Cotta with Cranberry Pear Sauce,” which just don’t sound real enough for most people I know.

Therefore I am taking a different approach. As a registered dietitian and cultural anthropologist, I have prepared a pledge of the ten things I will not do on Food Day, or any other day of the year, because I believe they are contrary to health promotion and a sense of fairness to all of the people in America who need to hear messages about good nutrition.

Food Day Pledge From a Registered Dietitian

I hereby pledge not to:

  1. Blame any single food, beverage or ingredient for obesity. It’s a complex issue with many biological, environmental, behavioral and social implications. We don’t have all the answers but the shot-gun approach of targeting one thing as the cause doesn’t help.
  2. Use toxic language to describe otherwise edible food. Terms like “toxic,” “garbage” and “junk,” have no place in the conversation when a food is not spoiled or is otherwise safe to eat.
  3. Hide vegetables in other foods in order to get kids – or anyone else – to eat them. Only in America could such an idea flourish.
  4. Presume that the food supply and/or diets of Americans were actually better at some other time in history than they are right now. We simply weren’t micromanaging everything we ate in the past as we are today since most of history was dominated by a need to stay one step ahead of starvation.
  5. Submit to the idea that food advertising and brand marketing are more powerful than individual choice. They may lead us to the product, but we buy based on education, income and circumstances.
  6. Profess that we know all that there is to know about our nutritional needs and how to meet them. The science of human nutrition is young and still evolving, so I will always be ready for more breakthroughs.
  7. Let the rapid rate at which news travels via the Internet undermine the slow and methodical pace of scientific discovery. Changes in dietary guidance are not based on single studies or viral videos.
  8. Forget that most Americans do not live near a farmer’s market or other local source for year round produce. Frozen and canned vegetables are two of the best values in the grocery store.
  9. Ignore the fact that there is no such thing as “The American Diet.” Food consumption survey data is at best a fuzzy snapshot of what some people ate for a few days of the year, as best as they could remember and describe it. That does not tell the whole story.
  10. Overlook the uniqueness of each person’s diet as a reflection of his or her cultural, ethnic, religious and socio-economic heritage and, most importantly, personal tastes.