Great news for dark chocolate lovers: Dark chocolate has fewer calories and less sugar than milk or white chocolate, and has more protein and antioxidants. Studies show the flavonol antioxidants in dark chocolate can actually keep cholesterol from accumulating in the blood vessels and help improve blood flow, and it can also be good for gut health. (Photo by Randy Roberts)


Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day like a big box of chocolates.

And the good news is, some of those luscious bites of deliciousness are actually good for you.

That’s the message Rachel Snyder, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Blanchard Valley Health System, brought to those attending 50 North’s monthly dietitian chat titled “Facts and Fallacies About Chocolate.”

“Most people really do enjoy chocolate,” said Snyder, adding it makes up about half of the 2.8 billion pounds of candy Americans consume each year.

Lauren Smith, an intern at Bluffton University, explained chocolate is derived from cocoa and that cocoa beans, which are about the size of a butternut squash, grow on trees. The cocoa beans or seeds first undergo a fermentation process; the seeds are laid out to dry in the heat for about a week.

“That will help develop the flavor because the seeds are very bitter at the beginning, so that will help turn the bitter flavor into the chocolate flavor,” she said.

The seeds continue to dry for another five to 12 days, lowering the moisture content from 60 percent to 8 percent, she said.

“After they’re dried, they’re cleaned and then roasted,” said Smith. “That also helps bring out the chocolate flavor.”

Processing the beans is the next step and involves removing the outside hull of the seed. This leaves little bits of the cocoa bean, called cocoa nibs, which are ground until they liquefy into cocoa liquor. The liquor is separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter, said Smith.

“The cocoa butter is all of the fat that’s in the cocoa bean,” she explained. “And the cocoa powder is that dark chocolaty taste that you get.”

Once separated, processing occurs and the cocoa butter and cocoa powder are mixed at different levels. Sugar, milk and other ingredients are then added to make the chocolate we are familiar with, she said.

“Different companies will use different levels of each one and you’ll get different types of chocolate. That’s also how you get milk chocolate and white chocolate and dark chocolate,” said Smith.

Of the differences:

  • White chocolate is made with cocoa butter that has been mixed with sugar, milk, soy lecithin and other ingredients. “It is very sweet. But when it comes down to it, it really isn’t chocolate anymore because they’ve removed that cocoa solid and added a whole lot extra to make it what it is,” said Snyder.
  • Milk chocolate must contain at least 10 percent of the cocoa liquor and 12 percent of whole milk. That’s where the name comes from.
  • Dark chocolate contains at least 35 percent of cocoa solids.

As you get more cocoa, usually you’re going to get fewer calories, less sugar, more protein, more fiber, more antioxidants and fewer artificial ingredients, she said.

Dark chocolate has also been shown to provide some advantages healthwise. Snyder said studies indicate the flavonol antioxidants in dark chocolate can actually keep cholesterol from accumulating in the blood vessels and improve blood flow. Dark chocolate also contains some fats, including oleic acid, a heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fat also found in olive oil, along with stearic and palmitic acids, which are forms of saturated fat, she said.

Palmitic acid is a saturated fat that tends to cause the LDL cholesterol — or bad cholesterol — to rise, said Snyder.

“HDL can help improve heart health, but LDL does the opposite. So sadly there is a component of that fat in dark chocolate,” she said.

Although stearic acid is also a form of saturated fat, Snyder said it doesn’t necessarily increase or decrease cholesterol levels.

Dark chocolate is also beneficial for gut health, she said.

“Research presented by the American Chemical Society found that there are beneficial microbes such as lactic acid, and then other bacteria that actually feed on chocolate within our gut. So by eating chocolate we are feeding those good bacterias in our stomach,” said Snyder.

As it ferments, it produces compounds that are anti-inflammatory, she said.

“So when you’re eating dark chocolate, remember that you’re feeding those good bacterias in your stomach that we need to fight off things in our immune system, keeping our bowels moving properly, all kinds of good benefits,” she said.

There are also disadvantages, Snyder noted.

“I think there’s more benefits than disadvantages,” she said. “As the cocoa beans are processed, at 100 percent, that cocoa would have a lot of benefits. But as we move our way down more toward white chocolate which really doesn’t have any of that cocoa in it, you’re losing those benefits.”

The more processed the chocolate, the more sugar, milk and fat sources are added.

“So it becomes more of a dessert-like thing than any benefit,” she said. “So enjoy chocolate in moderation. Look at the nutrition facts label when choosing the type you want. And watch out for candy bars that can add additional ingredients that can add more sugar, fat and calories.”

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