Chocolate: Healthy or Not?
By Melissa Conroy

Whether it’s Mother’s Day, Easter, Christmas, Secretary’s Day, Halloween or any day of the year, chocolate is sure to be found somewhere: sitting in a glass dish on a desk, wrapped around bars of vanilla ice cream in the freezer, stashed in a purse, lurking in a dresser drawer, literally everywhere.

Worldwide, the chocolate industry accounts for $50 billion a year in revenue: $13 billion of those sales are from U.S. chocolate companies like Mars and Hershey’s. The average American eats about 12 pounds of chocolate a year, and we collectively eat about 2.8 billion pounds a year. However, the Swiss have us beat because the average Swiss eats 21 pounds of chocolate a year.

Despite the many joys of chocolate, this creamy and decadent treat is often consumed with a side helping of guilty pleasure. Present a succulent box of chocolate to someone, and it is rare that they will dive in without the slightest hesitation. Chocolate is candy after all, and most of us will try to put up at least a token resistance to chocolate, mindful of our waistlines and our teeth. But is eating chocolate in moderation OK for us?

The answer is complex, but it boils down to this: Chocolate contains a number of beneficial elements, and there are certainly worse treats you could chow down on. For starters, chocolate has a number of healthy vitamins and minerals. Here are some of the nutrients in the average 100 grams of dark chocolate:
Protein 4.7 grams
Fiber 3.14 grams
Calcium 38 milligrams
Magnesium 100 milligrams
Folate 10 micrograms
Vitamin A 40 micrograms

Nutrition will depend on the type of chocolate you have and how it was processed. Milk chocolate has more sugar and more calcium because of the milk content. White chocolate, surprisingly enough, has more zinc and carotene than dark chocolate. All chocolate has nutritional benefits to offer, but overwhelmingly nutritionists and experts recommend dark chocolate as being the most healthy of the three.

One particular nutrient that chocolate has to offer are flavanoids: these are compounds found in plant-based foods and are particularly effective in combating vascular problems. Flavanoids act as antioxidants, helping shield the body from damage and repair damages that do occur. While there are over 4,000 different flavanoids, chocolate has a particular type of flavanoids called flavanols — these give chocolate its pungent, slightly bitter taste. While certain processing procedures can lower the amount of flavanols in your chocolate, choosing dark chocolate and to avoid any chocolate that has undergone Dutch processing (treating it with an alkali to make it less bitter) will help you get a good dose of flavanoids.

Chocolate does have fat in it. A bar of Dove dark chocolate contains 12 grams of fat and 7 grams of that is saturated. However, the fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter, which is made up of three types of acids: palmitic, stearic and oleic. Stearic acid has a neutral effect on cholesterol; it does not increase or lower it. Palmitic acid can cause cholesterol to rise, but it only comprises one-third of the fat content in chocolate, so it is not a significant risk factor. While it is important to watch your fat content, moderate chocolate consumption will not give your heart problems and may actually improve your heart function.

In the end, high-quality dark chocolate consumed in moderation (a few servings a week) has many important health benefits to offer and is not the unhealthy snack that it is often depicted to be. However, you need to be wise in choosing your chocolate: a gooey concoction of coconut, chocolate, nuts, nougat and caramel is much too sugary and fatty to be healthy. Also, good-quality chocolate is worth the price: Instead of picking up a $1 Hershey’s bar while you are waiting for your groceries to be rung up, spring for some Ghirardelli or Godiva or other high-end brand. In recent years, there has been more of a demand for high-quality chocolate, and many stores like Wal-Mart and Target now have a section with excellent chocolate creations from both the US and abroad.

To learn more, purchase this excellent guide and cookbook Chocolate: Cooking with the World’s Best Ingredient by Christine McFadden and Christine France. This detailed book gives the full history of chocolate, talks about its importance in culture and provides other useful insights into the mysterious and soul-thrilling substance that we so adore. It also provides a mouth-watering collection of recipes to follow. Lavishly illustrated and fascinating, this book is a must-have for any chocolate fan.

The next time someone offers you a decadent square of shiny, silky chocolate, thank them for helping you protect your heart, boost your potassium levels and get some magnesium.

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