Beneficial to Your Health…and Society!
By Cathy Burke, RYT
Recently, media has been touting the health benefits of chocolate, a great source of antioxidants and an instant rush of endorphins in the brain. While this is certainly news to savor, there are many differences in the kinds of chocolates available, and your selections can have a hefty impact on your personal health, the health of the environment, and society.
Good for Our Bodies
All chocolate provides antioxidants, but in different amounts. The rule of thumb is that the darker the chocolate, the more antioxidants there are available. The percentage listed on the package (59%, 74%, etc.) indicates the percentage of cocoa mass used in the product. A 2005 study by the Agriculture Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency, confirmed that the higher this mass, the higher the antioxidant content. Another study showed that just a few squares of dark chocolate per day (approximately 2 oz.), “may substantially increase the amount of antioxidant intake and beneficially affect vascular health.”
Further, the general rule with chocolate, as with most other foods, is that the less processing that takes place, the healthier it is for your body. For example, Baking Chocolate uses more fat than actual cocoa, which reduces the level of antioxidants you receive. Alkalization, a process used to reduce the acidity of cocoa—common in Dutch and hot chocolates—also decreases the antioxidant content of the chocolate. Milk chocolates or poorer quality chocolates with added fillers, typically have a lower cocoa content and therefore less antioxidant availability, as well.
Many commonly available chocolates include alkalized chocolate in their ingredients rather than pure, unprocessed cocoa. To identify processed chocolate, look at the ingredient list. A pure dark-chocolate product will contain approximately four ingredients:
• Cocoa or cocoa mass—the part of the cocoa bean that includes antioxidants and is used to make chocolate
• Sugar or evaporated cane juice—used to sweeten chocolate and reduce bitter taste of pure cocoa,
• Cocoa butter—fat used to produce smooth texture and flavor in chocolate, and
• Cocoa solids or liquor—is derived from the cocoa bean and includes antioxidants.
Milk chocolates will use less cocoa mass and include milk to produce a less-intense, creamier flavor, which reduces the antioxidant content. Many brands include soy lecithin (or another lecithin) – an emulsifier made from soybeans to give chocolate its smooth texture. This can be problematic for some people with food sensitivities, especially those with soy allergies. The flavor may vary based on additional ingredients, including nuts, spices, herbs or fruits. Some lower-quality chocolates contain a variety of other ingredients, which are usually included to compensate for flavors in products that use less actual cocoa, reduce costs, and extend the shelf life of the product.
When selecting chocolate, look for high-quality products with a higher antioxidant level. Selecting purer chocolate products will provide these benefits and truly be enjoyed by yourself and those on your gift list. Also, while dark chocolates do provide a beneficial amount of antioxidants, remember that, like all sweets, chocolates provide a significant amount of fat and calories and should be enjoyed in moderation.
Good for the Earth
The way chocolate is harvested can be very strenuous on the planet if precautions aren’t taken. Further, the way it is produced plays an important role in the quality and taste of the final product. In general, organic and sustainably produced chocolates are made on a small scale and are typically minimally processed and use only a few ingredients in their recipe, guaranteeing a high-quality, great-tasting product, high in antioxidant content. Cocoa beans, from which cocoa and chocolate are made, are raised in many regions including Africa, Asia, South America and Central America—all within 20 degrees of the equator.
When not raised sustainably or organically, these crops contribute to rainforest and habitat destruction, as well as poor working conditions for those who harvest the crops. Organically grown cocoa crops do not use pesticides, and do not put an extra burden on the environment around the crop. These crops grow in the existing shade of native canopy trees, benefiting the local people and conserving the habitat of threatened plant and animal species, as well as ecology.
For more information about how cocoa gets from the tree to your chocolate bar, visit the World Cocoa Foundation at www.worldcocoafoundation.org or the Rainforest Alliance at www.rainforest-alliance.org.
Good for Society
Cocoa farming provides a livelihood for more than 40 million people, mostly small farmers. Cocoa and chocolate products that are not produced in a fair trade manner often involve exploitation of child labor and don’t pay workers enough to support their families. When consumers demand goods that are developed in a socially and environmentally responsible way, they not only receive a better product, but also help build a socially concerned economy and bring better lives to people who may not otherwise have opportunities. Fair-trade chocolates and goods do just that. While these items may sometimes come with a slightly higher price tag, they are often of higher quality and, in the case of chocolate, provide better health and taste.