SHERYL AFONSO e D’SOUZA
CLINICAL NUTRITIONIST (NORBERT’S FITNESS STUDIO) & ASST. PROFESSOR (POST GRADUATE DEGREE STUDIES, CARMEL COLLEGE)
Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao tree, whose official name is Theobroma cacao. The following is a brief of the varieties of chocolate and its products available in the market:
- Bitter chocolate, commonly called dark chocolate, is produced by pressing roasted cocoa kernels between hot rollers
- Cocoa powder is produced by squeezing the fat from bitter chocolate, i.e. cocoa butter, and powdering the remaining material
- Sweet chocolate is produced by adding sugar and vanilla to bitter chocolate
- White chocolate contains sugar, cocoa butter, and milk solids
As is clearly evident, bitter chocolate can be considered ‘pure’ chocolate as it has no outside constituents added to it. What will vary, however, is the percentage of cocoa that the final product contains. The brand of chocolate will also determine the amount of sugar added to the final product. This in turn will influence the taste of the chocolate – the higher the cocoa content, the more bitter (and healthier) the chocolate.
The cocoa bean comes laden with flavonoids, a category of antioxidants that are today known to have a multitude of health benefits. The cocoa bean is also a rich source of minerals such as iron, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, selenium, magnesium, copper, and manganese. The fatty acid profile of cocoa is also excellent, the fats being mostly monounsaturated and saturated.
The health benefits of the cocoa bean are directly transferred to the product derived from it. Hence, bitter chocolate will imbibe all the positives of the bean – the benefits being more when the cocoa content is higher, i.e., when the chocolate is ‘darker’. Dark chocolate comes loaded with antioxidants that include polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins. The flavanols in dark chocolate stimulate the endothelial lining of arteries to produce Nitric Oxide, a gas which sends signals to the arteries to relax; this lowers resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure. Dark chocolate is also known to raise heart-beneficial HDL-Cholesterol and protect against LDL oxidation. Dark chocolate can also reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for many diseases like heart disease and diabetes. The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate are also great for the skin. The flavonols can protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration. Dark chocolate is also known to improve brain function and significantly improve cognitive function in the elderly with mental impairment. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine (PEA) and the neurotransmitter anandamide , brain chemicals released during moments of emotional euphoria – that’s why eating chocolate makes one feel happy! ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is a measure of the antioxidant activity of foods, and raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are among the highest scoring foods on this measure – a benefit passed on to dark chocolate.
With all its numerous benefits, it is easy for one to go overboard with the consumption of dark chocolate once you’ve developed a taste for its bitter flavour. However, you should realize that chocolate is still loaded with calories and is easy to overeat. Hence, savour a square or two after a meal, and stop at 4 squares a day every alternate day – don’t get yourself ‘hooked’ onto this delectable delight. Remember – any ‘healthy’ food in excess can also be bad. Also be aware that a lot of the ‘dark’ chocolate on the market is not necessarily healthy. Choose quality dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content. Read food labels and ensure that the first ingredient listed is cocoa, and not sugar. Dark chocolate can often contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. The recommended “dose” of dark chocolate is approximately 30 to 60 g of 70% (or more) cocoa per day. And remember …. the darker, the better.