Chocolate: Healthy Treat or Guilty Pleasure?

February means Valentine’s Day, and what says love better than chocolate?  We hardly need an excuse to indulge, but when headlines repeatedly tell us about chocolate’s health benefits, sales understandably go up.  Even though a 2013 study put those findings into question, suggesting that the health benefits of chocolate had been overstated, it certainly didn’t impact sales.  Will you still be indulging?

The initial findings (funded by a major chocolate company), based its assumptions on the general health and low blood pressure of an indigenous tribe in Central America, whose ritual practices included the drinking of a large amount of locally grown cocoa. The 2013 study stated that in reality, the tribe’s actual consumption had been misunderstood or grossly overstated.

Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols, naturally occurring antioxidants, which can help to reduce damage from free radicals. Flavanols have also been credited with helping to prevent blood clots and there is some evidence that they may be able to help reduce levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, in the bloodstream. However, flavanols, along with all their purported health benefits, are virtually destroyed once the beans have been heated and processed into the chocolate that we all love.  In fact, it’s debatable whether the chocolate we eat contains any significant amount of flavanols at all. And as flavanols are bitter, harnessing their health benefits from cocoa beans may in future mean taking them in pill form, a decidedly less delicious way than we would have liked.

Just because it isn’t as good for us as we may have thought, it’s okay to indulge on occasion.  We can lessen the guilt by choosing wisely:

  • Opt for organic to help minimize your consumption of pesticides.
  • “Fair Trade” chocolate is an indication that the producers and farmers work closely together based on principles of fair and ethical compensation.  “Fair Trade” can also indicate that measures are in place to ensure no forced labor was used, that the crops were grown and harvested in a sustainable way, and the farmers received a guaranteed price regardless of market fluctuations.
  • Choose dark over milk chocolate.  It has less sugar, fewer calories and a significant advantage when it comes to fibre and iron content.

If you’re well and determined to have some chocolate this month, you’re in good company.  No need to wait until International Chocolate Day in September.  And yes, it really does exist.