Chocoholics rejoice! The amount of evidence in favor of eating chocolate is increasing.
Most of the health benefits of chocolate are believed to be in its key ingredient: cocoa. More and more studies are linking regular cocoa consumption with a slimmer waistline, improved heart health, increased insulin sensitivity, and improved brain function. Rich in flavanols — a potent group of antioxidants — and minerals, including magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and manganese, a dose of cocoa a day may help keep the doctor away.
But not all chocolates are created equal. Here’s what to look for when choosing a chocolate fix.
1. Certified Organic
Select chocolate products that are certified organic so you can be sure they aren’t genetically engineered (GE). Most chocolate today (even dark chocolate) is GE. Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes, changing various aspects of the food, like how they grow, how they taste, and how they look. There are mixed reports as to whether GE foods are safe to eat. Better to stick to what nature has given us.
2. Pure State
The closer your cocoa is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value. Ideally, your chocolate or cocoa should be consumed raw (cacao). In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao. However, cacao is fairly bitter, so the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is. If you can, opt for a bar made with raw cacao, otherwise a dark chocolate bar made with organic cocoa is your next best option.
3. Minimal Ingredients
The quickest way to know if the chocolate you pick up is a good choice is to check the ingredients list. Keep things simple and choose chocolate with cocoa or cacao as one of the top three ingredients. The main components of good-quality chocolate should be cocoa or cacao, cocoa butter or coconut oil, and a natural sweetener. Skip the ones with soy products, hydrogenated fats, milk solids, thickeners, humectants, and other unnecessary ingredients; they’re generally laden with chemicals and artificial ingredients — not health benefits.
4. Lower Sugar
Cocoa and cacao are naturally bitter; to make them more palatable they’re often paired with lots of sugar. Skip the cane sugar, corn syrup, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and other refined sugars. When checking the ingredients list, look for varieties sweetened with honey, coconut sugar, or pure maple syrup instead. Typically the darker chocolate you choose, the lower the sugar content, so aim for 70 percent or more cocoa.
Fats found in good-quality chocolate help slow the absorption of sugar, lessening the insulin spike. Ideally, the type of fat in your chocolate bar should be what is contained in the natural plant — cocoa butter. Cocoa butter has a mix of palmitic, stearic, and oleic fatty acids. The primary fatty acid is stearic acid, which is the only saturated fat that favorably affects HDL without adversely affecting LDL. Unrefined coconut oil is also a good choice, containing medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) that can help reduce triglyceride levels. The major MCT in coconut oil is lauric acid, which gets broken down to monolaurin in the body, providing antiviral and antibacterial properties, too.
6. Fair Trade
Where possible, choose a fair trade chocolate. Purchasing fair trade products helps to support better prices, decent working conditions, sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.
7. Quality Versus Quantity
Regardless of health benefits, you can still have too much of a good thing. There’s currently no specific dose recommended, but a small amount of dark chocolate once a day appears to be most beneficial. If you’re watching your waistline, be mindful not to overdo the serving size, as the calories from fat and sugar can add up quickly.
A version of this article first appeared on Food Matters. It has been reprinted with permission.