Get Choosy With Chocolate
We keep hearing more and more about the health benefits of chocolate. Not that most of us need any encouragement to eat it. Chocolate comes in so many forms, though, that in order to get the most health benefit, you'll need to choose wisely.
Chocolate is derived from the seeds of cacao tree. This tropical fruit is actually a huge berry, about the size of a football, and the bitter seeds are encased in a mildly sweet fruit. The seeds are fermented, then dried, roasted, and shelled, and finally ground into a mass that's made up of the cocoa solids and the fatty cocoa butter to become unsweetened chocolate.
But with added sweeteners, and sometimes milk, unsweetened chocolate is magically transformed into the confection we all know and love. The cocoa solids without the fat become cocoa powder, while cocoa butter is often blended with sugar and milk to make white chocolate; a bit of a misnomer, since it contains no cocoa solids at all.
Naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, called flavonoids, are powerful antioxidants that fight free radical damage and are considered heart-healthy. The darker and more bittersweet the chocolate, the better it is for you. Milk chocolate has a lot less of these healthy compounds than dark chocolate, and white chocolate has virtually none.
For baking, I prefer using a good quality cocoa powder over the unsweetened baking squares. It's got a deep, rich flavor, it's practically fat-free, is easily stored in the freezer, and if you buy it bulk it's no more expensive than the supermarket varieties. With cocoa powder, you can easily add more to your recipe to increase the depth of chocolate flavor, without adding the extra fat that's found in the unsweetened baking squares.
Chocolate syrup is made with sugar and cocoa, it's fat-free, and has only 50 calories a tablespoon. It's one of the cheapest ways, calorie-wise, to get your chocolate fix. Chocolate syrup is great drizzled over berries or chunks of frozen banana or mango. Use it to make your own chocolate milk, too – since the premade chocolate milks are overloaded with sugar and calories. I think it's implied, since I mention that it has 50 calories per tablespoon.
Chocolate candy bars take on literally hundreds of forms, but it basically boils down to this – the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa solids, the more flavonoids. Some chocolate bar labels list the percentage of cocoa they contain – but that refers to both the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter. Since it's the solids that you're after, look at the nutrition label and find the bar with the highest percentage of cocoa and the least amount of fat. That way, you'll be getting the most of what you do want, and less of what you don't.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.