by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
Chocolate is always associated with the holidays, which are now upon us. I don’t just enjoy chocolate this time of year but anytime, in small amounts of course. I prefer dark chocolate—the darker and more bitter the better, and yes, this is healthier than the wide selection out of sweeter and lighter milk chocolate available. The varieties of chocolate have expanded exponentially in the last 10 to 20 years in regard to all the percentages of dark options available, types of milk chocolate, as well as the additions of different fruit and nuts, etc. It’s a little overwhelming to look at the shelves of chocolate since there are so many different kinds to choose from and new ones constantly appearing.
Chocolate is derived from the cacao/cocoa tree native to Central and South America. It is an evergreen tree that grows about 15 to 26 feet tall. The scientific name Theobroma means “food of the Deities.” The pods that weigh about a pound are harvested from the tree using a machete or by knocking them off the branches with a stick. The pod is then cut open so the beans can be extracted along with the delicious pulp around each bean. The beans are allowed to ferment for about seven days in bins. After this the beans must be quickly dried and then roasted to prevent mold growth. Then the shells of the beans are removed to extract the nibs. Next the nibs are ground until a liquid is produced known as chocolate liquor—pure chocolate in liquid form. Further processing of the chocolate liquor can result in cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and cocoa powder. Last but not least the liquor is then blended with sugar, milk powder, and flavorings such as vanilla to produce chocolate of varying types. As you can imagine the production of chocolate takes a lot of hard work and the final product tastes much different than the bitter taste of the cacao nibs!
The Mayans first became knowledgeable of the cacao tree and chocolate’s health potential when they ground the bitter beans into a brew that they drank and used for the treatment of heart conditions, depression, and other health problems. Chocolate, primarily the dark variety, contains a high level of flavonoid antioxidants. Current research indicates that these antioxidants have some positive impact especially in regard to cardiovascular health and the brain. They have been shown to lower blood pressure and to improve the function of the cells lining the heart and the blood vessels. The flavonoids in dark chocolate have been shown to accumulate in the areas of the brain involved in learning and memory. It should be stressed again that these health attributes apply to consumption of dark chocolate varieties and not the sweeter or milk chocolate varieties or those chocolate products containing a lot of other ingredients like large amounts of cream, butter, or sugar for example. Chocolate is best eaten in moderation, in a portion of a couple ounces or less. The benefits are outweighed if larger amounts are consumed. It is easy to overindulge in this delicious food and it should be recognized as a treat! Of course to be fully enjoyed it should be consumed slowly to savor the taste and texture, and to appreciate all the hard work that goes into making chocolate from this tropical tree.
To get the most nutrition punch for your dollar when shopping for chocolate, buy chocolate that has a 70-percent or higher cocoa content. Choose varieties that have the fair trade seal or are organic. The fair trade and organic seal on the label ensures that the people working in this industry are making a fair wage for their hard labor without harmful chemicals and pesticides.
One of my favorite ways to consume chocolate other than by breaking off small pieces is to melt it and dip assorted pieces of cut fruit such as bananas, strawberries, oranges, clementines, or mango into a warmed sauce made from melted dark chocolate, the darker the better. Allow the fruit to chill once it has been dipped into the sauce and serve the chocolate dipped fruit on a platter. This is a perfect combination of delicious nutritious fruit with a hint of sweetness from the chocolate.