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Researchers have found that eating a small amount of chocolate every day could lower the risks of stroke, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s. But not all chocolate is created equal and so it’s not a good idea to reach for just any chocolate bar.

The benefits of chocolate have been well researched, and there is evidence that chocolate is good for both the heart and the brain. The caveat is that many of the ingredients added to healthy cocao when chocolate is manufactured are not at all healthy, particularly sugar and processed fats.

Cocoa For Making Chocolate

Cocoa beans or cacao seeds come from the pods that grow on a small tropical tree, Theobroma Cacao, that grows 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator on several continents including South America and Africa. It is these seeds that are at the heart of chocolate.

First the fat is extracted from the beans, leaving what is known as cocoa solids. Then the leftover pulp is ground into cocoa powder. Both are used as ingredients to make cocoa and various chocolate products.

When we talk about cocoa many people immediately think of a hot milk chocolate drink. But cocoa is in fact just one ingredient of hot chocolate – milk and commonly sugar being the others. Cocoa is also an ingredient used to make chocolate bars and candy. Furthermore, if you buy cocoa powder, you’ll often find that it isn’t pure cacao. For instance so-called Dutch cocoa is neutralized with an alkali to get rid of the acid content. Some types of commercial cocoa powder products have other additives, so it is always advisable to check the label for ingredients.

When you buy chocolate, the percentage of cocoa solids is usually shown on the label as a percentage (by weight) of the chocolate slab or bar. But this figure also commonly includes additional cocoa butter that might have been added to the chocolate by the manufacturer. It does not include sugar or other additives like processed fat. In general, at least 70 percent cocoa solids indicate a good quality chocolate; bear in mind that a typical “good quality” commercial, so-called “dairy chocolate” might only have 20 percent cocoa solids!

I first became aware of the difference between healthy chocolate and the sugar-packed dairy milk chocolate I pigged out as a child when I watched Channel 4’s four-part series that featured Willie Harcourt-Cooze (see photo above.) Founder of the Devon (UK)-based Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory, who grows his own cocoa beans in Venezuela, Willie was undoubtedly a forerunner in the contemporary commercial production of “bean-to-bar” healthy chocolate, since earlier producers had pumped their products with milk and sugar.

How Chocolate Helps Our Health

It isn’t chocolate itself that benefits our health, but rather the nutrients and antioxidants that are found in cocoa beans.

Antioxidants help the cells in our bodies to combat damage that is caused by the free radicals that form naturally in our bodies, for instance as a result of breathing polluted air and environmental contaminants. One of the effects of too much oxidation is that low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – better known as “bad” cholesterol – forms a kind of plaque on the walls of arteries. Antioxidants help the cells of the body resist this.

Flavonoids are a key antioxidant and plant nutrient found in fruit and vegetables (and in cocoa beans). Mostly found in the form of flavanols, these flavonoids have also been found to have a profound effect on vascular health by:

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving blood flow to the heart and brain
  • Enabling the blood platelets to clot effectively
An important factor is that for chocolate to be beneficial it must contain these natural flavonoids. But most chocolate is highly processed, which reduces the flavanol content, which in turns means it isn’t necessarily good for you.

Cocoa beans also contain a large percentage of fat, commonly extracted in the form of cocoa butter, which of course is also found in chocolate. There are different types of fat including heart-healthy oleic fat, a monounsaturated form that is also found in olive oil, as well as palmitic and stearic acids that are types of saturated fat which have historically been linked to the increase in LDL and therefore the risk of heart issues. Researchers have found though that stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol, acknowledging that it isn’t all bad, and that in fact most of the natural fat that comes from cacao is beneficial.

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