The Sweet Truth: Uncovering the Health Benefits of Chocolate

— By Kayla Parsons, PhD Student, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Chocolate is synonymous with Valentine’s Day, and quite frankly, can be enjoyed in moderation during the whole year. You may have taste preferences on your preferred treats, whether it’s peanut butter cups, dark chocolate covered strawberries or white chocolate truffles, but do you know the science behind them? In this article, we’re going to explore all about chocolate.

Cacao Beans

Cacao beans, also interchangeable with the term cocoa beans, are the most raw form of chocolate which are grown on Theobroma cacao trees. Cacao is cultivated in tropical climates, originating in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, but now is grown in over 50 countries globally. Before major processing, you can eat cacao beans, but they have a strong distinct bitter flavor. Nutrition-wise, cacao is popular due to its flavanol content, which contributes to the bitterness of the bean. Flavanols, also commonly found in tea and grapes, are natural chemical compounds that act similarly to antioxidants. Some peer-reviewed research has identified that flavanol intake from cacao beans may improve cognition, mood, and blood pressure in healthy adults.

Cocoa Powder

Cacao becomes cocoa nibs, after fermentation and roasting. Cocoa nibs can then be processed into cocoa liquor, cocoa butter (the fat containing portion of the cocoa nibs) and cocoa powder (what’s left after removing the fat). You can think of cocoa powder as a concentrated version of cacao, without added sugar or fat. This property of cocoa powder can be advantageous based on the recipe at hand. The two most common types of cocoa powder are natural and Dutch process cocoa powder; with natural being more versatile in cooking and dutch-process packing a deeper chocolate flavor. Suddenly in the mood for something chocolate-y? Try EFNEP’s easy Hot Cocoa or Mocha Convenience Mix for a sweet treat.

Milk Chocolate

You may have noticed walking down any cashier aisle at the grocery store, milk chocolate is widely available in commercial products, such as the classic chocolate bar or chocolate milk. Milk chocolate gets its creamy flavor from the addition of fats and milk solids, which is dried milk powder after the removal of water. In the finished product, there is also less cocoa liquor as compared to dark chocolate. This alters the nutrient content of the milk chocolate, reducing the amount of health benefits that are derived from the cacao beans. One way we can boost the nutritional benefits of milk chocolate is if we add it to foods high in protein or fiber. There’s nothing more tasty than blueberries dipped in chocolate or sprinkling some milk chocolate chips on your favorite Greek yogurt.

Dark Chocolate

One of the biggest differences between dark chocolate and milk chocolate can be found in the name – dark chocolate isn’t made with milk. Dark chocolate has a much higher percentage of cocoa as compared to milk chocolate and white chocolate. In contrast to other types of chocolate, it contains higher amounts of the health-promoting flavanols that we discussed earlier. Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa is also loaded with minerals, such as:

  • Iron: a major component of the blood that helps oxygen be transported throughout the body’s tissues
  • Zinc: a mineral which plays a major role in supporting the immune system
  • Magnesium: a mineral that regulates muscle and nerve function
  • Phosphorus: a major component of bones, teeth, and cell membranes
  • Copper: a trace mineral needed in small amounts for energy metabolism and growth

White Chocolate

Perhaps the most controversial of sweets, white chocolate’s classification in the chocolate family is disputed by most due to its lack of cocoa nibs. Instead, there is a heavy reliance on cocoa butter which is then processed with sugar, cream, milk, and vanilla flavoring. As with all items high in added sugar and saturated fat, white chocolate should be consumed in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 recommends that no more than 10% of our daily calories come from added sugar.

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