If you’re a chocolate lover, February can be an especially tasty month. Stores are awash in all manner of chocolate treats, and gorgeous photos and recipes for homemade chocolate goodies are plentiful. If you feel you should abstain from chocolate for health reasons, I’m here to say “Go ahead and eat the chocolate!” People have been consuming chocolate in various forms for thousands of years. There absolutely are different ways to enjoy it—from more “responsible” chocolate choices, to all-out indulgence. Eating chocolate is one of life’s pleasures that we needn’t deny ourselves.
Chocolate and Health
First off, let’s make no mistake about this. Chocolate candy is not a health food by any means (and neither are most things made with chocolate). That’s okay—not every morsel you put into your body has to be measured against a ruler of healthfulness. That said, in its most basic, cocoa-powder form, chocolate does have nutritional value (fiber and iron primarily). You also may have heard that eating chocolate is linked with heart benefits, better blood pressure, and reduced risk of diabetes. Unfortunately, a recent meta-analysis indicates that these associations are quite weak. Additional studies have looked at the impact of cocoa-derived polyphenols on cognition, and although the research looks promising, more work needs to be done.
A daily chocolate candy habit won’t make or keep you healthy, but you didn’t really think it would, did you? I believe that down the line that the health research on various components of chocolate will firm up. Until then, do keep in mind that generally the research is looking at the most healthful parts of chocolate—not the kind of chocolate that we typically eat, which comes with plenty of sugar and fat. And for the record, greater amounts of the healthy components are found in dark chocolate and cocoa powder—much less is found in milk chocolate.
Choosing Your Chocolate
If getting the most of those cocoa polyphenols is your goal, you’ll need to go for the dark chocolate—the darker, the better. Of course, the darker chocolate is, the more bitter it is (and the less sugar and fat it generally contains). You might have noticed that more and more often, labels on chocolate tend to indicate the percentage of cocoa it contains. Aim for chocolate that’s around 70% cocoa. Getting used to dark chocolate may take some time if you’ve never had it. Start with a 60% chocolate and work your way up to a higher cocoa percentage—there are worse things to work at, right? If you’d rather just choose chocolate for its “meltability,” the smooth way it feels in your mouth or its sweetness, that’s fine too. I would suggest, however, that you experiment with higher quality chocolate. You’ll be amazed at the difference between an average candy bar and a square of high-quality chocolate.
How Much Chocolate?
There are a couple of points I want to make about the question of how much chocolate. Let me preface this by saying that, I’m firmly in the “little bit each day” camp when it comes to chocolate (and I almost always have dark chocolate because I prefer it and want those polyphenols!). So my first point is this: learn to eat chocolate mindfully. When you choose high-quality chocolate and take the time to truly savor it (eating it slowly and letting it melt in your mouth), it’s easier to be satisfied with just a small amount. Mindfully consuming chocolate brings a new level of awareness to the whole experience. You might notice that it takes a larger amount of lower-quality chocolate (especially when it’s milk chocolate) to satisfy your chocolate desire. The second point is that, the more chocolate it takes to satisfy you, the more calories, fat, and sugar you’ll end up consuming, too. When you are eating foods like brownies, cookies, fudge, or ice cream, the calorie/sugar/fat problem becomes a bigger issue. Keep your chocolate high in quality and small in portion, and try to eat it mindfully—it works!
If you’re looking for some chocolate-containing recipes that earn Guiding Stars, check out this Chocolate Dairy-Free Ice Cream, Chocolate Date Snack Bars, and a variety of Brownies. Enjoy mindfully and in moderation.