If you believe major news media, then you probably think chocolate is the worlds greatest superfood. Not only can it cure cancer, but it promotes peace in the Middle East, and if you eat it every day, you will look exactly like Gisele Bundchen!
I hope by this point in life you’ve realized media headlines are often exaggerated. This is often the case when it comes to nutrition studies, especially if the food was once considered off limits. Any time a study suggests even the hint of health benefit for chocolate, the results are loosely paraphrased into an attention grabbing headline. “Chocolate is the new brain food!” “Can chocolate prevent cancer?” “Prescription for chocolate? New study may sway some docs.”
Is chocolate really healthy? You’ll be pleased to know the answer is yes! But before you pick up that Joey sized Toblerone, please know that all chocolate is not created equal.
When you hear a health benefit of chocolate, it’s almost always referring to chocolate’s flavonols. Flavonols are a type of phytonutrient found in many foods including the skin of apples and grapes, red wine, tea, and berries. Cocoa beans are particularly rich source.
Studies have found flavonols have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and brain health. Most of this effect stems from flavonols ability to improve endothelial function, or blood flow. Flavonols increase the synthesis of nitric oxide in blood vessels, which allows them to dilate, or relax. As you can imagine, this is especially helpful for someone with reduced blood flow due to atherosclerosis. Plus, greater blood flow means more oxygen is delivered to organs and tissues.
At least 200 mg of flavonols are needed to improve blood flow. While flavonol content can vary from brand to brand, generally speaking, the more processed a chocolate is, the less flavonol it contains. Flavonols have a bitter flavor, so to make chocolate more palatable, it is often treated with alkali, a process that destroys them. Large amounts of sugar, cocoa butter, milk and milk fat are added to chocolate candy, which displaces the pure cocoa bean. This also adds a significant amount of calories. Depending on your choice of chocolate, you could eat half a days worth of calories before you reach the recommended 200 mg of flavonols. To get a feel for what 200 mg of flavonols looks like, check out the following list:
Cocoa powder: 1 3/4 tablespoons (20 calories)
Baking chocolate: 1/2 ounce (70 calories)
Semi-sweet chocolate chips: 1 1/2 ounces (200 calories)
Dark chocolate: 2 ounces (320 calories)
Chocolate syrup: 1 cup (840 calories)
Milk chocolate: 10 1/2 ounces (1,580 calories!!)
As you can see, cocoa powder is your best bet for flavonols. I try to sneak in cocoa powder most days, usually with raw cacao powder, as it is least processed and contains the highest flavonol content. Sometimes I mix it into my morning cup of coffee to make a mocha. If I’m craving sweets, I blend a couple tablespoons with a frozen banana and almond milk for a healthy milkshake. You could even make a smoothie booster with cocoa powder, chia seeds and cinnamon.
After braving the cold and rain to pick up our two Christmas trees yesterday (yup, we do two!), we desperately needed something warm and cozy to fight the chill. This cup of thick, creamy Mexican spiced hot chocolate was perfect. I like to put a Mexican spin on my hot cocoa, mixing in cinnamon and chili powder, which is how the original hot cocoa was made. The almond meal enriches the almond flavor and helps to thicken it. It is also reminiscent of another feature of original Mexican hot chocolate, which had ground corn mixed in.
- 2 cups unsweetened almond milk
- ¼ cup plus 2 tbsp cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons honey
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp almond meal
- Large pinch cayenne pepper
- Pinch sea salt
- Mix all ingredients together in a small pot. Warm over medium heat while whisking to combine.
- Divide between two mugs and serve.
- Garnish with additional cayenne (go light!), cinnamon and a cinnamon stick if desired.