If you’re like me, you love to eat chocolate! Chocolate lovers rejoiced when the benefits of anti-oxidants found in chocolate and other foods began to be marketed. But in reality, the potential benefits of anti-oxidants in processed chocolate are slim to none.
But unprocessed, dark chocolate is actually great for you. It’s very high in anti-oxidants and flavanols.
Let’s take a look at how anti-oxidants and flavanols work in our bodies.
Why is Chocolate Healthy?
Free radicals are unbalanced compounds created by cellular processes in the body, especially those that combat environmental toxins. These compounds can run wild, creating damage in the body and interrupting normal physiological functioning.
Anti-oxidants are compounds that are believed to neutralize free radicals and protect the body from such damage. Anti-oxidants include vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals—helpful plant compounds.
Flavonols are one of these antioxidant phytochemicals that may protect us from damage caused by aging and environmental toxins. Flavonols are a type of flavonoid found in chocolate and cocoa.
Flavonols are said to promote heart health and reduce the risk of cancer. Flavonols may also help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart.They may reduce cholesterol levels and arterial plaque. Some studies suggest that flavonols may reduce stickiness in blood platelets, reducing the risk of stroke, say Cleveland Clinic and University of Alabama doctors.
Chocolate manufacturers have gone hog-wild marketing these health claims for their products, but these assertions warrant another look. Sometimes things that seem too good to be true really are.
Studies on Chocolate
These studies have been conducted with chocolate that contains high levels of flavonols. Unfortunately, the chocolate that most of us eat has been processed in ways that destroys flavonols.
Cocoa is naturally bitter and very strong-tasting (as anyone who’s tried a taste of baker’s chocolate knows!) Chocolate-makers mellow this flavor by processes such as alkalizing, fermenting, roasting and adding milk and/or sugar, all of which can destroy flavonols, alter our ability to use them or negate their health effects with unhealthy additives.
Most studies of the beneficial effects of chocolate are simply observational: they’re not clinical trials.They’ve looked at people who eat chocolate and measure health effects without accounting for other dietary aspects or lifestyle habits. So a person that eats a bit of chocolate every week and is healthy might also be the person that works out three times a day or avoids other processed foods like the plague.
Types of Chocolate
Flavonol is a pigment that gives chocolate its color, that’s why dark chocolate is preferable to other options. White chocolate contains no flavonols at all. Ordinary plain chocolate, says a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, has only 43% flavonol-containing cocoa. Milk chocolate, says the study researchers, typically contains only 30% cocoa and the average candy bar only 15%.
Milk chocolate is America’s favorite, says University of Alabama doctors. A recent study posted in Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that milk interferes with the absorption of flavonols. This is especially true if the milk is pasteurized.
That’s why I only recommend you eat small amounts of minimally processed dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content. This type of chocolate will contain the most powerful anti-oxidants and the least amount of sugar.
Sources: Cleveland Clinic (2010), University of Alabama at Birmingham (2008), BMJ Group Partnership (2010)
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