Demystifying Dark Chocolate

Chocolate close up
Chocolate close up

The allure of chocolate

Why do you eat chocolate? If you ask this question the answer you receive may astonish you. The reasons are wide-ranging. People eat chocolate when they are happy or sad. They eat chocolate to celebrate and also to alleviate loneliness. Parents can attest that nothing beats chocolate as a bargaining chip. Simply put, it makes us feel good! It makes us smile and we momentarily forget our worries. Thinking about chocolate brings to mind a delicious, sweet flavour that never fails to appease. Not many can resist this tempting delicacy and many people do proudly attest to being chocoholics.

What differentiates it from the competition?

Chocolate comes in not only many flavours and shapes but its makeup determines whether a chocolate will be termed to be a white chocolate, a milk chocolate, powered cocoa or a dark chocolate. Each has a distinct aroma and taste. But the most profound difference lies in their differing nutritive values. The distinction is established by the presence or absence of cocoa solids which are all of the ingredients from a cocoa bean, including cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and even ground cacao nib.

White chocolate has the dubious honour of possessing the least nutritive value of the four mentioned types. It is made from cocoa butter from which cocoa solids have been removed. Cocoa butter is added to milk and sugar to make white chocolate. Bio-flavonoids which contribute to any healthy nutrition are found in cocoa solids. A lower quantity of cocoa solids and addition of milk and a large quantity of sugar hampers the overall nutritional profile of the white chocolate.

For milk chocolates, the addition of fat through milk or cream as well as calories derived from sweeteners make its nutritive value marginally higher than that of white chocolates.

Powdered cocoa, popularly used in a hot beverage, has a high nutritional value but only if it has no additions of cream, high-fat milk or sugar to it.

Dark chocolate wins this contest lacking any tough contenders. The packaging on dark chocolate bars mentions the percentage of cocoa in it, sometimes as high as 70% or more. The higher it is increases the possibility of the nutritional value you receive. A higher cocoa percentage means more cocoa solid and more cocoa butter in them. This results in a darker, strongly flavoured chocolate that lacks sugar and additional flavouring.

The bio-flavonoids and antioxidants present in dark chocolate enhance its worthiness in the eyes of the medical community.

Chocolate: Comparisons of Antioxidant Activity and Cocoa Content (Approximate values)

Flavonoids act as antioxidants which are known to help neutralise the overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules and help protect our cells from damage that can occur from exposure to certain chemicals, smoking, pollution and radiation. Consuming foods rich in antioxidants prove beneficial for your heart health and also lower your risk of infections and some forms of cancer.

Nutritionists prescribe a piece of dark chocolate, a couple of times a week for the most valuable benefit. However for people with Diabetes, the dark chocolate should not be sugar-sweetened.

The making of a marvel

The deliciousness of chocolate is due to these ingredients-

  • Chocolate Liquor is liquefied cocoa beans which have been previously fermented, roasted and ground. It constitutes cocoa butter and cocoa solids.

  • Cocoa Butter which is the natural fat from the cocoa bean.

  • Sugar and milk in some types of chocolates. However direct sugar is not good for people with Diabetes.

  • Lecithin, a modified substance that prevents water and fat from separating. (Organic chocolates do not contain this ingredient.)

  • Vanilla and other flavouring as well as fruits and nuts for specialty chocolates.

Chocolate undergoes a long refining process to reach its final stage. The cocoa beans, from where chocolate originates, are seeds from the fruit of the cocoatrees. They are fermented, and dried. The beans are further inspected, cleaned, roasted and ground to a paste called chocolate liquor. Further pressing, rolling, mixing with other ingredients and heating and cooling produces chocolate ready to be shaped into bars, packaged and sold.

The least amount of cocoa solids in a chocolate for it to be considered 'dark'(Approximate values)

Medical benefits of eating dark chocolate

  • The antioxidants in cocoa help relax the blood vessel walls, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. As a result, more oxygen and nutrients reach every cell.

  • Dark chocolate is loaded with organic compounds that function as antioxidants which prevent premature ageing.

  • Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids and gallic acid. These help prevent cholesterol from attaching itself to the artery walls. This reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Dark chocolate contains measurable amounts of oleic acid considered to be essential for a strong immune system as well as healthy brain function.

  • Dark chocolate aids digestion.

  • Dark chocolate helps in the treatment of kidney stones and anaemia.

  • Dark chocolate prevents the bunching of blood platelets which results in blood clots.

Is dark chocolate always good? The dark side of dark chocolate

  • Dark chocolates have a high calorie rate due to fats and processed sugar.

  • Cocoa, the main ingredient of dark chocolate, has measurable amounts of caffeine. Caffeine, in large doses, causes palpitations, anxiety and insomnia. It is also addictive.

  • It contains vasoactive amines that lead to migraine problems.

  • Dark chocolate could dilate the vessels of the brain.

  • These facts could also apply to other types of chocolates.

Dark chocolate and Diabetes

The most commonly accepted perception is that once a person has been diagnosed with Diabetes it signals the death knell to any pleasure derived from eating sweets and desserts. This commonly accepted reasoning is debunked by dark chocolate if consumed in moderation. Advantages presented by dark chocolate do not provide a free hand to indulge at whim. But rather it is an indication that contained consumption can help reap rewards.

Why should people with Diabetes eat dark chocolate?

Flavonoids help reduce insulin resistance, the hormone responsible for regulating glucose level in the body. The cocoa plant, from which dark chocolate is made, is a rich source of flavonoids. Consumption of flavonoids helps reduces the negative effects of Type 2 Diabetes. These flavonoids also prevent chronic inflammation. Their anti oxidant properties protects against damage to cells in the body. Flavonoids help in protein regulation and improve metabolism.

Dark chocolates contain more flavonoids compared to milk chocolate and white chocolate. Therefore dark chocolate is considered good for people with Type 2 Diabetes.

Moderation is the key

Intake of any kind of chocolate whether white chocolate, milk chocolate or dark chocolate must be in a balanced manner especially by people with Diabetes. Moderation in diet is the key for people with Diabetes. This rule applies to dark chocolate as well. A square or two of dark chocolate every other day will prove beneficial in keeping the doctor away.

Dark chocolate does not pose a threat to people with Diabetes if their glucose levels are under control and their lifestyle comprises healthy food and daily exercise. A healthy combination of adding dark chocolate to a balanced low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar diet that includes starchy carbohydrates and plenty of fruit and vegetables could prove beneficial.

Portion control is essential. Health benefits of dark chocolate are most beneficial if meals with too many calories and too much saturated fat are avoided. Binge eating will bring forth all problems associated with eating chocolates as it is easy to forget that dark chocolate is still loaded with calories. Dark chocolates often contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small. Also, the darker the chocolate is, the lesser sugar it will contain.

Expert speak

The probability of developing cardiovascular diseases doubles if you have Type 2 Diabetes. This increase is due to lower levels of HDL or good cholesterol. Research has indicated that dark chocolate could mitigate this risk.

Medical practitioners often recommend that chocolate with a high cocoa content should be a part of the dietary intake of people with Type 2 Diabetes along with a balanced lifestyle. This could help the lower the cardiovascular risk without affecting the weight, insulin resistance or the glucose control for an individual with Diabetes.

Researchers have also discovered that dark chocolate has 'theobromine' which can help stop persistent coughs better than prescribed medicine.

Researchers have discovered that a particular set of compounds, known as 'oligomeric procyanidins' which is a type of flavonoid that improves glucose tolerance. It contains the greatest anti-obesity and anti-diabetic bioactivities of all the flavonoids found in cocoa.

Researchers discovered that dark chocolate improved insulin resistance and sensitivity and decreased systolic blood pressure. The concentration of flavonoids in any chocolate is determined by the flavonoid content of the cacao plant and the methodology involved in converting cocoa to chocolate. The higher the flavonoid content in the finished product, better the health benefits accrued from it.

Bitter is better?

'The more bitter it is, the better it is' is the mantra to remember while selecting a dark chocolate. The bitter taste should ideally last ten or fifteen seconds on your tongue, before melting away. A higher percentage of cocoa with only a hint of sweetness will provide you with a flavour that deepens with every bite. A smooth, rich dark chocolate, regardless of cocoa content, should transfer flavour, aroma and bite onto the palate. Dark chocolate, a sensory delight, remains a healthy indulgence.

How to choose dark chocolate that is good for you

While choosing a dark chocolate bar keep the following points in mind.

It should:

  • Be 100% Organic (please note that simply labelled 'organic' is not the same thing).

  • Be >70% cocoa. The cocoa content of dark chocolate ranges from 30% to 75% or even above 80% for extremely dark bars. Terminology to determine the cocoa content of dark chocolate bars is bittersweet (>70), semi-sweet (30% -70%) and sweet dark (30%) chocolate.

  • Be made from cocoa butter instead of coconut oil or palm oil.

  • Have few ingredients. It should list ingredients such as chocolate or chocolate liquor before listing ingredients like sugar.

It should not:

  • Be made using the "Dutch process" or be processed with alkali. This process destroys the health benefit containing flavonoids.

  • Made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

It is important to check these details on the packaging and the nutrition label before purchasing a dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate reigns supreme

Life does not stop with a diagnosis of diabetes. People with Diabetes can continue to enjoy the finer things in life in moderation. The health benefits of dark chocolate because of cocoa cannot be dismissed especially as they provide protection against cardiovascular disease.

The cocoa content of the dark chocolate plays an important part in benefiting from the quality of its ingredients. Dark chocolate not only tastes good but it is increasingly referred to as a health food. Its healing powers are being touted as the next big thing.

With these tips in mind you can enjoy a piece of two (as your health permits) of healthy dark chocolate. But do bear in mind that as in all things moderation provides the finest results.

Diabetes Health Magazine