Heart-boosting helper or just another sinful treat? Here are the health facts you need.
The smooth decadence of dark chocolate melting in your mouth — nothing feels quite like it. With alternating notes of bitter and sweet to awaken your taste buds, it’s no wonder chocolate is so beloved.
Over the years, we’ve heard flip-flopping advice about chocolate and cardiovascular health. While one report claims it’s good for us, the next warns that it’s not a health food. Here are some myths and facts about chocolate.
Myth: Chocolate is all the same
Truth: All chocolate comes from cacao beans, which are fermented, roasted, ground and separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. A range of products are made from these – and the more processed they are, the less healthy they become.
Here are the main products, from least to most processed:
- Cacao nibs are broken pieces of cacao bean. Raw and unprocessed, they are crunchy with a bitter chocolate flavour. You can buy them at health food stores and some grocery stores.
- Cocoa solids, also called cocoa powder, is deeply flavoured and bitter. Look for “natural” cocoa powder, which is less refined than “Dutch process” powder.
- Dark chocolate is made from cocoa solids (minimum 35 per cent) and cocoa butter, with a small amount of sugar. It’s also called semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate.
- Milk chocolate contains less cocoa solids (minimum 12 per cent) than dark, plus cocoa butter with milk powder and sugar.
- White chocolate is made from cocoa butter with no cocoa solids, plus milk and sugar.
Myth: All chocolate is heart healthy
Truth: It’s not chocolate that’s healthy – it’s the cocoa solids. Here’s why.
- They contain antioxidants called flavonoids, which may help reduce inflammation and prevent insulin resistance.
- They also contain a compound called theobromine, which has been linked to reducing blood pressure and raising “healthy” HDL-cholesterol levels.
Together, these components provide heart-protective effects.
The chocolate products with the highest nutritional value are ones that contain the most cocoa solids – cacao nibs, cocoa powder and dark chocolate.
But remember, heart health comes from following a balanced diet that contains vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish and other nutritious foods. Eating cocoa-rich products won’t make a bad diet better.
Myth: Milk chocolate is as nutritious as dark chocolate
Truth: Milk chocolate has more sugar and fat and fewer antioxidants than dark, so scores lower on nutrition. Lower still is white chocolate, which has no cocoa solids and no antioxidant content whatsoever.
Whether you like your chocolate light or dark, it’s best consumed plain and in small amounts. Those nutty caramel nougat chocolate bars that call to you at the checkout counter are loaded with calories, fat and sugar, but little nutritional value.
Myth: Dark chocolate is heart-healthy so I can eat as much as I want
Truth: Dark chocolate contains more than 500 calories per 100 grams, so calories add up quickly. Clinical studies on cardiovascular benefits of chocolate use different amounts in their tests — anywhere from 15 to 100 grams a day. This makes it difficult to recommend a heart-healthy dose with any accuracy. If you love dark chocolate, enjoy it in small amounts and be mindful of calories.
Myth: Chocolate is high in saturated fat
Truth: Chocolate does contain saturated fat, but it’s mostly stearic acid, which doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels the way other saturated fats do. As part of a balanced diet, a bit of chocolate is fine.
Myth: Chocolate belongs in a heart-shaped box
Truth: If you’ve ever enjoyed mole, the cocoa-spiked, spicy Mexican sauce, you know chocolate has a flip side. Cocoa powder and dark chocolate are excellent in savoury dishes, and pair well with chillies, cinnamon, ginger and rosemary. Cocoa powder can be used in sauces, baking and warm drinks. For a robust chocolate experience, try cocoa nibs on yogurt, in oatmeal or as a bold salad topping.
Try these new heart-healthy recipes starring the many sides of chocolate: