The Bitter Truth
About Chocolate
By Ellen Kittredge

As Lucy from the Peanuts comic says, “All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt!” What is it about chocolate that makes it so appealing? Why do so many people have such a strong association with this food? There are few foods that enter our daily discourse quite as frequently as chocolate. The two others are red wine and coffee, and interestingly enough, these foods share some common characteristics with chocolate.

The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

As a chocolate lover and avid researcher of any and all foods that come across my path, I have always been aware that I should not let my personal preferences sway the scientific facts.

Luckily for me, and those of you for whom the thought of a smooth, delicate bite of this delectable food starts your mouth watering, the facts are on our side!

Chocolate is a healthy food. Let me give you a few more details though before you go out and buy a big Hershey’s bar.

It turns out that the cocoa bean, from which chocolate is derived, is perhaps the most potent source of antioxidants of any food we know. A measure of antioxidant capacity is called ORAC (oxygen radical absorption capacity). You may see certain juices containing fruits like blueberries, raspberries, acai berries, etc. with high ORAC scores. The higher the ORAC score, the more antioxidants the food has, and the better job it will do in healing some of the damage that free radicals do in our body. So, a high ORAC score is a very good thing.

Blueberries, one of my favorite foods, score in the 2,000 range for ORAC. Cocoa beans have an ORAC score of 13,120, more than six times higher than blueberries. The problem, however, is that cocoa beans, by themselves, are a very bitter food. So the vast majority of chocolate that you will find on the market has been paired with sugar, which is not a health food. The more sugar and milk in a chocolate bar, the lower the antioxidant capacity and the less beneficial it is to the body.

The important thing to remember here is: “The more bitter the better.” The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it has, and the higher the ORAC score will be. Most people in the nutrition field agree that any chocolate with a cocoa content of 70 percent or higher can be considered a healthy food. Anything less than that and you are falling into questionable territory. Another factor to consider when purchasing chocolate is that raw chocolate, which is relatively unprocessed is actually healthier than chocolate that has gone through more processing, so make sure to give that a try next time you see it on the shelf.

If you don’t consider yourself a dark chocolate fan, I have two suggestions. One, try buying higher quality organic and fair-traded dark chocolate. Yes it will be more expensive, but see it as a treat, something to be indulged in slowly. Know that the taste will be far superior to the dark chocolate you may be more familiar with. Two, try to slowly work your way up to 70 percent. Start with 55 percent, then move to 60 percent, etc. This is what I did in making the switch and it really works.

You’ll notice that once you switch to dark chocolate you will not eat as much, as it is immensely more satisfying, and that if you do try milk chocolate again it will seem too sweet. I say this based not just on personal experience, but on feedback from many clients.

A few more interesting facts about chocolate:

Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which actually may be more responsible for the stimulant effect you feel when you eat it than caffeine. Chocolate actually contains little caffeine. Theobromine comes from Greek, and can be translated as “food of the gods.” It is used in medicine as a vasodilator (blood vessel widener), as a heart stimulant and may be the active component in chocolate that has given chocolate such notoriety as an aphrodesiac.

Because it contains stimulants, chocolate is not a healthy food for people who have a more sensitive nervous system. If you fall into this category, stick with blueberries. They have no apparent side effects, and are quite a delicious treat in and of themselves.

Cocoa contains a special kind of fat that is anti-inflammatory and helpful with weight loss. The scientific name for this fat is oleoylethanolamide, or OEA. This fat acts similarly to fish oil, which contains omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants in its ability to counter inflammation in the body.

Throughout the ages, chocolate and the cocoa bean, have always been given great honor and treated with respect. The cocoa bean was used as money by the Aztecs and Mayans, and has been a part of celebrations for as long as humans have been harvesting and eating it.

Ellen is a nutrition and health counselor practicing in Annapolis and can be reached at or (202) 577-1940.

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