Chocolate is lusciously sweet, but is it healthy? Maybe you have heard of the medical benefits of eating chocolate, particularly in preventing cardiovascular disease, explained Richard N. Fogoros, MD, of VeryWell Health, a health information website.
According to non-profit academic medical center Cleveland Clinic, cocoa bean is rich in flavonoids, which protects plants from environmental toxins and repair damage. Flavonoids can also be found in fruits and vegetables.
In cocoa and chocolate, the main type of flavonoid present in these products are flavanols. Flavanols help improve blood flow to the brain and heart, make blood platelets less sticky and aid in clotting, and lower blood pressure.
Chocolate Consumer Survey on Respondents’ Perceptions of Cocoa and Chocolate Production (2018)
The Farmgate Cocoa Alliance, a non-profit in the Netherlands, found that most of their respondents were from Europe (74.4%), North America (9.3%), and Australia (5.8%). 38.4% of consumers purchased chocolate and coca products every week, while 23.3% and 19.8% of respondents bought them every two weeks or every month, respectively. Only 9.8% said they purchase chocolate and cocoa products daily or rarely.
When asked how they think cocoa is produced, 52.3% answered “small scale plantations,” 37.2% said “large scale plantations,” and 10.5% chose other options such as a combination of both small and large scale farming. When asked if they are aware of any sustainability issues related to cocoa, 79.1% said they were aware of such issues. The respondents were aware of low income (91.2%), environmental degradation (82.4%), and child labor (76.5%) as the main sustainability issues they were aware of.
73.3% of respondents tried to purchase sustainable cocoa products while 26.7% do not try to buy these products. The respondents tried to buy sustainable products through certified products such as Fairtrade, UZ, or Rainforest Alliance labeled items (57.1%). Of these, 23.8% researched brands and initiatives or bought premium brands (9.5%). Only 9.6% of respondents chose the “other” option, indicating other activities such as looking for direct trade opportunities or combining activities. When asked why they don’t buy cocoa products, the respondents answered not knowing which products are sustainable (43.5%), they do not think the products would make a real impact (21.7%), and being too costly (17.4%).
Regarding the question: “If buying certified or labeled products, where do you expect the premium paid for it to go?” 83.3% said “to farmers,” 11.1% said “to certification body/organization,” 2.8% answered “to charity,” and 2.8% said other options. When asked do they know if the cocoa in certified products is sustainable, the respondents answered trusting in the certifications (47.2%) and not knowing whether there was any real impact (41.7%).
16.7% said they would continue buying a certified cocoa product if it was shown to have no sustainability impact at the farmer level, unlike 83.3% of those who answered “No.” When asked which issues are the most important issue when purchasing sustainable cocoa/chocolate products, the respondents answered farmer income (54%), environment (22.2%), and slavery (12.7%).
Types of Chocolate
Cacao originates from the raw seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, which is extremely rich in catechin and epicatechin. These are flavanols that are beneficial to cardiovascular health. Cocoa comprises of ground up and roasted cacao seeds. Most cocoa products available to consumers are further processed to add sweetness and get rid of the bitter flavor. Cocoa is bitter because of the presence of flavanols. However, commercial cocoa products contain small amounts of flavanols.
Chocolate is manufactured by adding sugar and fat. As a highly processed and sweetened product, milk chocolate undergoes the process of alkalinization or Dutching) to remove flavanols, resulting in a smooth and sweetened product. If you want to get your dose of 750 mg of flavanols a day, you will have to consume so much milk chocolate to the point that it will exceed the recommended daily calorie, unsaturated fat, and sugar intakes, cautioned Harvard Health Publishing, a trusted health advice website.
On the other hand, dark chocolate is less processed and contains more flavanols than milk chocolate. This explains why dark chocolate tastes bitter and less sweet than the latter. Package labels usually state the percentage of cocoa in these products. However, the numbers can be misleading as they indicate the product’s combined amount of cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Flavanol content also varies. It is possible to get 750 mg of flavanols, but you will end up consuming over 700 calories.
White chocolate is cocoa butter and contains no chocolate solid products. Further, it has been removed from cacao seeds and contains no flavanols. Therefore, white chocolate should not be perceived as a true form of chocolate.
Which One Is the Healthiest?
Although most chocolate manufacturers are devising ways to retain the flavanols in their processed chocolates, the healthiest one would likely be dark chocolate. Cocoa powder that has not been alkalized is also a healthier option over milk chocolate, as the latter contains excess sugar and fat. If you want to purchase dark chocolate, opt for the healthier option. For example, dark chocolate covered in chewy caramel marshmallow nut is not the most healthy of all dark chocolate products.
Check the ingredients list and see if the extra ingredients contribute to added fats and calories. More research is needed with regard to serving size. Presently, there is no established serving size of chocolate to help you improve your cardiovascular health. Your best move is to consume moderate portions of chocolate (at least 1.5 ounces) a few times a week and to eat other foods rich in flavonoids like apples, tea onions, cranberries, and red wine.
Flavanol Content In Chocolates
Flavanol content depends on certain factors such as the genetics of the cocoa plants harvested, soil makeup, and how the cocoa beans were processed. Most manufacturers don’t indicate the flavanol content on their products, making it difficult for consumers to judge the amount of flavanols in chocolate and cocoa products.
There are brands like the Hershey Company who claim that their Special Dark chocolate has good flavanol content, but has not published it. If manufacturers are keen on promoting chocolates as healthy, they will need to produce more flavanol-rich chocolate products and disclose the flavanol content on the packaging.
It’s not bad to indulge yourself in a few squares of chocolate if eaten in moderation. Chocolates like dark chocolate may have benefits but it is still candy. It is recommended to consume flavanol-rich foods like apples and cranberries.