Martin Schoenbeck: Know your chocolate

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Chocolate, just like alcohol, is not all created equal. Unfortunately, many of the well known brands have begun using palm oil as a cheaper substitute for cocoa butter, which “real” chocolate should be made exclusively from.

From a nutritional perspective “both are high in saturated fat and will raise total cholesterol, and I would expect that there would not be a great difference from a health perspective,” said Walter Willett, professor and chairman of the Department of Nutrition for Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

However, there is a vast difference in environmental impact, as we see deforestation on a dramatic scale to provide the never-ending demand for cheap palm oil. This is threatening to make the orangutan extinct through loss of natural habitat. Suitable orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has declined by more than 80% in the last 20 years. It is estimated that an average of 1.15 million ha of forest per annum has been lost on Borneo between 2003 and 2007. This has been chiefly replaced with palm oil production. I certainly would think that is reason enough for avoiding palm oil containing chocolate – even if the taste difference doesn’t put you off. 

Nutritionally, the healthier choice is to go dark. Cacao comes from the dried and fully fermented seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. There is a lot of debate around the health benefits of raw cacao versus cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures.

Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value. Nearly all commercially available chocolate is made from heat-treated cocoa powder. However, some of the health benefits remain.

Dark chocolate contains much less sugar and the darker it is, the greater the cocoa content. Generally, a good dark chocolate bar will contain above 50% cocoa, and can go higher – some brands are 70% or more. Milk chocolate on the other hand only contains 20-25% cocoa plus much more sugar, and of course we should already know the issues surrounding refined sugar.

Some of the health benefits of cocoa include:

  • Protection from disease causing free radicals. Two groups of antioxidants prevalent in dark chocolate are flavonoids and polyphenols. Dark chocolate’s cocoa has actually been shown to have the highest content of polyphenols and flavonoids, even greater than wine and tea. These compounds can protect against inflammation, which is a key factor in many chronic diseases. 
  • Improved circulatory and heart health. Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in dark chocolate. According to Cleveland Clinic, research has shown that flavanols have a very positive effect on heart health by helping lower blood pressure and improving blood flow to the heart as well as the brain. Dark chocolates flavanols can also help make blood platelets less sticky and able to clot, which reduces the risk of blood clots and stroke.
  • Better cognitive function. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated flavonoid-rich dark chocolate’s ability to improve cognitive ability, specifically in the elderly. This cross-sectional study of over 2,000 participants ages 70 to 74 years old looked at the relationship between the intake of chocolate, wine and tea (all rich in flavonoids) and cognitive performance. The study concludes that “intake of flavonoid-rich food, including chocolate, wine, and tea, is associated with better performance across several cognitive abilities and that the associations are dose dependent.”
  • Improved blood pressure, and sugar metabolism. There are already 75 scientific articles looking at dark chocolate and blood pressure. A study published in 2015 compared type 2 diabetics’ consumption of white chocolate versus high-cocoa, polyphenol-rich dark chocolate. The subjects consumed 25 grams of dark or white chocolate for eight weeks. The researchers found that not only did dark chocolate lower the B.P. of the hypertensive diabetics, but it also decreased fasting blood sugar. Of course, if you’re a diabetic, the higher the cocoa content, which also means the lower the sugar content, the better. It is important to note that 25g is a very small amount, only ¼ of the average bar.

But what about milk chocolate? Well that’s not such great news unfortunately. Legally, milk chocolate only needs to be at least 20% pure chocolate with at least 3.5% milk fat and at least 14% milk solids. Studies have shown that the proteins in milk might reduce the absorption of the healthy antioxidants from cocoa.

What’s the problem with milk? Milk actually appears to bind itself to the flavonoids in chocolate, making them unavailable to our bodies. This is why milk chocolate is not a good antioxidant source. It’s also why you don’t want to drink milk with your dark chocolate.

So in summary — the darker the better. Avoid palm oil if you want to help the environment – especially the orangutans, and don’t have too much of a good thing, because all chocolate is very high in calories.


— Martin Schoenbeck BSc (Hons) M.N.I.M.H. is a consulting medical herbalist and nutritionist working in Lincoln.