Good News, Chocovores!

Forrest Gump said life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. Eat the dark ones, though, and you can be certain about several things.

A Little Background

Chocolate has been consumed for at least 2,000 years. Pottery excavated in Honduras from as far back as 1400 BC shows evidence of cacao residue, but that’s not chocolate kisses.

Chocolate was strictly a beverage for most of its storied past. The Aztec word xocoatl—meaning a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans—was the origin of our word chocolate. Theobroma cacao—“food of the gods”—is the Latin name for the plant.

Ancient Aztecs and Mayas believed cacao beans had divine properties and included them in sacred rituals. So valuable were they in premodern Latin America that cacao beans served as currency.

Dark Chocolate’s Benefits

Beans harvested from Theobroma cacao are fermented, dried, and roasted like coffee beans. Then they’re ground to make cocoa, which yields cocoa butter and powder. Dark chocolate—also known as bittersweet or semisweet—contains 60 percent or more cocoa solids and little or no added sugar. With its rich, intense flavor, a little goes a long way.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen proved this with 16 lucky young men who were given both dark and milk chocolate. When they ate dark chocolate, they reported feeling more satisfied and less inclined to eat sweet, salty, or fatty foods.

Dark chocolate has earned a spot on the University of Michigan’s Healing Foods Pyramid, courtesy of its flavonoids—part of a group of antioxidants present in many foods, including tea, fruits, and vegetables. The flavonoids in dark chocolate have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity in healthy people.

And the reason for those heart-shaped boxes? Dark chocolate can improve cardiovascular status by lowering blood pressure, modestly reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good) levels, lowering the risk of blood clots, and increasing blood flow in the heart and arteries.

In the elderly, regularly eating dark chocolate is associated with better cognitive functioning. And a study of volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed found that eating dark chocolate for two weeks eased emotional stress and boosted endorphin and serotonin levels in the brain.

Choosing Chocolate

Look for dark chocolate with at least 60 percent cocoa solids, and made with cocoa butter rather than palm or coconut oil. Read labels and avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.

Storing Your Stash

Dark chocolate is sensitive to temperature and humidity. Store in a cool, dry place between 59° and 63° F. Wrap well to protect it from light and the aromas of other foods. Chocolate that absorbs moisture may have a whitish “bloom” that comes from fat or sugar crystals rising to the surface. It’s fine to eat but won’t look as appetizing. 

Do you fondue?

Limit yourself to an ounce of chocolate a day. A sinful treat is to dip fruit into melted dark chocolate. Try dipping berries, pineapple chunks, or slices of clementine and melon to get your sweets fix.

Good for what ails you

Seventeenth century Europeans drank sweetened hot chocolate and considered it a medicine and an aphrodisiac. During the Revolutionary War, Colonial soldiers found chocolate in their rations and sometimes received it in lieu of pay.