-Nutritionist and weight loss Guru, Ishi Khosla
The universal expression of love, goodwill, and festivity has been chocolate, nutty treats, and beverages like wine. Prepared with endless varieties, flavors, and shapes, and packaged beautifully, chocolates have made exotic gifts for centuries.
As the benefits of dark chocolates and beverages like wine are unfolded, many people begin to attach magical powers to these foods. Non-drinkers are tempted to drink and non-chocolate lovers begin to hunt for the best brands, all in an attempt to boost their health. Not only this, but chocoholics and alcoholics seem to legitimize their indulgences. That’s when facts need to be straightened.
Chocolates contain more than 400 different compounds. Chocolates particularly the dark variety has been found by researchers to contain polyphenolic compounds called flavanoids. These include catechins, epicatechins, procyanidins and many others. These phenolic compounds are also found in other fruits and vegetables, wine and tea etc. Flavanoids are also known for their special health benefits including antioxidant activity, preventing oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol, anticancer effects, lowering blood pressure and inhibition of platelet activity and inflammation. They also boost the immune system. Other benefits of chocolate include their mood elevating and stress relieving effects. Chocolate is believed to boost serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.
These are largely due to substances called phenyl ethyl amine (PEA) and tyramine. The smooth “melt in the mouth” consistency (due to cocoa butter) along with caffeine may also help elevate mood. No wonder women are known to use it as a fix for their premenstrual stress! Chocolate contains significant amounts of caffeine and a 100 gm. bar of dark chocolate contains more caffeine than a cup of instant coffee. Chocolate also provides magnesium and some iron. Magnesium is good for bones and helps control food cravings.
The cocoa tree’s scientific name is Theobroma Cacao, “Thebrome” means “the food of Gods”. While all cocoa powder, dark chocolates, white chocolate and milk chocolate come from the cocoa tree, the difference in their composition and processing gives them their unique characteristics.
The cocoa beans when cracked are called nibs. These are powdered and the heat generated melts the fat (cocoa butter). The suspension is called chocolate liquor. For making cocoa powder, the fat is squeezed out and remaining solids are dried into powder called cocoa. Cocoa powder does not contain much fat and gives the same benefits as dark chocolates.
Chocolate liquor can be solidified with cocoa butter without the addition of sugar to form unsweetened chocolates also called dark or bitter chocolates, often also called luxury or continental chocolates. Dark chocolates have a higher percentage of cocoa solids at least 75% with a little added sugar. In unsweetened varieties of dark chocolates, cocoa solids may be as high as 98%. It is these varieties which have been used in research studies and found to have cardio-protective and health benefits. Chocolate liquor can be mixed with sugar and fat to produce plain sweet chocolate also used for cooking, or it may be processed with sugar, milk and cocoa butter to produce milk chocolates. These have a very high sugar content upto 50% and only about 20% cocoa solids. Also it can contain upto 5% vegetable fat (a source of harmful trans fats) instead of cocoa butter.
Cocoa butter is a neutral fat and does not increase blood cholesterol levels. However, in excess it can cause undesirable weight gain and associated complications.
White chocolate is purely cocoa butter, sugar, flavor, milk and contains no cocoa solids and therefore, provide no special health benefits unlike dark chocolates.
So next time you indulge yourself, ensure you go for the darkest varieties and look for the highest percentage of cocoa solids, give it a miss if the label says hydrogenated fats. Remember you get about 500 kcals in a 100 gm. bar of dark chocolate and you can get most of the “flavanoids” benefits from brightly colored vegetables and fruits for only a fraction.