This week, you couldn’t help but have chocolate on the brain—whether or not you’re even a fan of Valentine’s Day. All the tempting chocolate ads and bulging display cases make it hard to resist the candy. And, with the media dutifully reporting every new study showing the health benefits of chocolate—why should you resist?
Not that you have a completely free pass on chocolate, but with the right quality and quantity, you can feel pretty good about eating it. Chocolate is rich in antioxidants called flavanols. Some research studies have shown that giving people (or lab animals) chocolate, as well as just the chocolate flavanols, results in reduced blood pressure and increased flow of blood through arteries. But not any chocolate will cut it; the richest source of chocolate flavanols is unsweetened cocoa powder, followed by dark chocolate. Milk chocolate usually has far fewer and white chocolate next to none. Besides flavanols, chocolate has another possible cardiovascular advantage: its fat, cocoa butter, is made up mainly of fatty acids that can be either beneficial to the heart (monounsaturated fat) or neutral (stearic acid, a type of saturated fat which doesn’t clog arteries).
Because there’s no official definition of dark chocolate, I’m going to give you mine: at least 50 percent cacao (pure chocolate), sometimes referred to as “cocoa” on the label. In addition to cacao chocolate contains sugar, cocoa butter, and, in the case of milk chocolate, milk. Plus, of course, it may contain nuts, dried fruit, caramel and other things. The higher the percentage cacao, the less room there is for sugar; so the darker the chocolate the less sweet it will be. If you’ve been eating milk chocolate, dark chocolate may taste too bitter for you. Build up to the taste by gradually moving up on the cacao percentage levels.
However, you may not know the percentage of cacao, because some labels don’t list it. And, even within the same percentage, bars can taste very differently depending on the type of chocolate used, how long it’s roasted and what else is added to the bar. A little trial and error may be in store for you, but it’s chocolate—how bad could those little taste tests be?
Other things to look for on the packaging: Check the ingredients list for “Dutch processed” or “processed with alkali,” a technique that cuts down on chocolate’s natural acidity, but, in the process, can destroy many of the antioxidants. (And even without alkali, processing techniques can diminish flavanol levels. Chocolate manufacturers are experimenting with ways to preserve as many antioxidants as possible.) And because cocoa beans, like coffee and many other products, are grown primarily in developing countries, you may want to check if it has a fair trade certification. You can be sure that products that sport this label come from a farm where laborers are well-treated and fairly compensated.
If chocolate sounds a little too good to be true, well, there is one catch: calories. An ounce of dark chocolate – a fairly small piece – has about 150 calories. However, I (and many other dark chocolate fans) will tell you that because dark chocolate is so much more complex and rich-tasting than milk chocolate, it doesn’t take as much to be satisfied. So, if you’re a regular exerciser without a weight problem you can probably get away with 1½ to 2 ounces of dark chocolate daily—and no other treats that day! If you’re watching your weight, then an ounce daily should probably be your limit.
While I’m very happy to eat my chocolate plain, my friend Sidra Forman, who is also a chef, suggests pairing it up with other foods, such as pears, bananas, peaches, figs and nuts. For a simple dessert, try melting one ounce of chocolate per person and dipping your favorite fruit in it.
And cocoa doesn’t always have to turn into a sweet treat. Sidra uses cocoa powder (one that is not processed with alkali) as a complement to meat, poultry and many vegetables, especially winter root vegetables. Try her simple recipe below; hey, this might be just the dish for your Valentine’s dinner!
Chicken with Cocoa Rub
Makes 4 servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes