It’s hard to go wrong with chocolate—any day. Every time we put a piece of luscious chocolate in our mouths, the world seemingly comes to a screeching halt. Our palates are held hostage by its seductive, silky ways as the chocolate’s flavours unfold.
Great news for chocolate lovers lies in the raft of research demonstrating that those morsels in the heart-shaped box could be “choc” full of benefits. The latest batch of studies suggests that a daily chocolate fix can help reduce blood pressure numbers, lessen the risk of plaque build-up in the arteries and improve cholesterol levels, thereby potentially slashing heart disease risk by a third.
Other possible health perks include improved skin health, elevated brain functioning, reduced heart-hampering inflammation and increased levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut. What’s more, according to a recent study in Physiology and Behavior, cocoa may improve the power of our eyesight. Also, a 2011 European Journal of Nutrition study reported that consuming chocolate before a workout can reduce muscle oxidative stress, which could improve exercise recovery.
Why the wide range of body benefits? The various guises of dark chocolate contain lofty amounts of epicatechin and other flavonoids—disease-thwarting antioxidants also found in red wine, tea and many fruits.
Thankfully for our waistlines, it appears that relatively little chocolate is needed—even as little as 28 g daily—to obtain many of the health benefits. Of course, it is the cocoa in the dark chocolate that delivers these benefits, and the higher the percentage of cocoa the better—aim for at least 70 per cent.
Cooking with chocolate
Think chocolate’s just for sweet treats and pastry chefs? Think again.
So much more than a sweet temptation at the supermarket checkout, these recipes demonstrate that chocolate can truly run the sweet and savoury gamut.
- Dark Chocolate Popcorn
- Cocoa Tostadas
- Chocolate Pu-erh Cakes with Cashew Ganache
- Yoghurt with Cocoa Nib Coffee Compote
Seeking out products with these labels can make your afternoon chocolate habit feel even better.
Fair Trade Certified
Cocoa beans are often grown in economically challenged communities. A fair trade certification means that the cocoa beans (and sometimes other ingredients as well, such as sugar) used to make the chocolate were sourced from farmers who were paid above-market prices, allowing for a better quality of life.
Chocolate bearing a certified organic label assures that the cocoa was grown sustainably and without dangerous chemicals.
Most of the chocolate sold in stores is made by blending cocoa beans from different countries. In a “single origin” chocolate all the beans were sourced from one country, perhaps even from a single farm. Chocolate aficionados believe chocolate, like wine, has terroir, with different growing regions offering different flavour nuances such as fruity, nutty and smoky.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Chocolate that is certified by the Rainforest Alliance contains cocoa from farms that strive to conserve the habitat of threatened plant and animal species by reducing rainforest removal. This also reduces the need for nasty pesticides, as cocoa grown under the forest canopy is less prone to damage from pests.
Choosing the best chocolate
Not all chocolate is created equal. These versions deliver the biggest wallop for health and flavour.
It is important to choose chocolate with cocoa content of at least 70 per cent. The higher the cocoa percentage, the higher the dose of antioxidants and the lower the sugar content. This should be clearly stated on the package; if not, move on.
Healthy flavonoids are what make chocolate bitter, so progressively develop your palate through a range of chocolate bars with a higher cocoa content until you really enjoy the more intense ones.
Best uses: try shaving it over porridge and desserts, or melt it and add to sauces.
Take cocoa beans, pummel them to bits and you’re left with pleasantly bitter cocoa nibs—chocolate as close to its natural form as possible.
On top of supplying tons of antioxidants, a mere 28 g of crunchy nibs provides 9 g of dietary fibre. While dark chocolate products such as nibs can contain high amounts of saturated fat, the majority of this is stearic acid, which, according to recent research, doesn’t negatively affect heart health.
Best uses: toss them into batters for baked goods, cereal, porridge, salads and yoghurt.
Unsweetened cocoa powder
After most of the cocoa butter is pressed from ground cocoa beans, a cakey substance is left behind that can be pulverised into a low-fat powder. According to a US study, the ORAC value—oxygen radical absorbance capacity, a measure of antioxidant power—of unsweetened cocoa powder is 12 times higher than that of blueberries.
Opt for natural or raw cocoa powder over Dutch-processed, which is treated to give it a milder flavour but lays waste to most of the flavonoids.
Best uses: add it to chocolate desserts such as cakes and brownies, blend it into smoothies or mix it into oatmeal and stews. Also add it to spice rubs for chicken, pork, tofu and steak.
Baking or unsweetened chocolate is pure cocoa, making it chock-a-block with antioxidants. Although baking chocolate is very bitter on its own, it lends a luscious chocolatey flavour when it’s melted and combined with sweeteners in items such as cakes and brownies. When various amounts of sugar are added, bittersweet or semisweet baking chocolate is created.
Here’s the lowdown on the main ingredients in a top-notch dark chocolate.
Also called cocoa mass, chocolate liquor is the paste produced by grinding up roasted cocoa beans. It contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter, so it’s where all the antioxidants reside.
The higher the stated cocoa content on the label, the more chocolate liquor the bar contains. White chocolate has none of this, so it is technically not chocolate.
Sugar helps cut the bitterness of the chocolate liquor. Don’t settle for dark chocolate that lists sugar as the first ingredient.
Manufacturers add additional cocoa butter—the isolated fatty part of the cocoa bean—to give chocolate its to-die-for, melt-in-your-mouth quality.
Used as an emulsifier, lecithin gives chocolate a smooth, less viscous texture.
Vanilla is added in very small amounts to complement the flavour of cocoa. Steer clear of products with artificial flavouring.
Beyond that, there are heaps of ingredients being mixed into chocolates these days, including chilli, sea salt, ginger, acai and espresso. Why not give them a try?