Chocolate: the iconic sinful, decadent food. The idea that chocolate is, by its very nature "bad for you," is ingrained in our minds. But what if it wasn’t chocolate itself that was the problem, but how we grew, processed, and ate it?
What if it was possible to enjoy chocolate with a clean conscience, even a sense of virtue?
What if there was such a thing as healthy chocolate? Well lucky for us, today there is.
Chocolate is Good for You
If you think eating a chocolate bar makes you feel better, you aren’t imagining it. The tradition of giving chocolate as a gift of love has a basis in science—chocolate contains compounds such as serotonin, theobromine, and anandamine, which are mood elevators and perception enhancers. It also contains phenyl ethylamine, which releases endorphins in your brain, creating a mild euphoria.
Chocolate doesn’t just give you a pleasurable feeling, it also has proven health benefits. Benefits include: the improvement of circulation (dark chocolate only), aiding the digestion of milk, and operating as a good source of magnesium and chromium. Theobromine is also an excellent cough suppressant. For more information about the various health benefits associated with consuming chocolate, visit Seventypercent’s article about Eating More Chocolate.
When you do buy artisan chocolate, in whatever form, take the time to savor it. Taking the time to linger over one quality chocolate bite of delight can be more satisfying, and will certainly be far healthier, than gulping down an entire bar of an inferior chocolate product.
Chocolate does contain caffeine but the amount is minimal compared to other common sources. What about those rumors of chocolate causing acne, headaches, hyperactivity, and high cholesterol? Not one of these common beliefs have held up under scientific study. Of course, that doesn’t mean chocolate products don’t contain harmful substances—it’s just that chocolate isn’t one of them!
What’s In Commercial Chocolate Products Besides Chocolate?
- Refined sugar in all its forms is a major constituent of chocolate products.
- Pesticide residues—there is little or no regulation of pesticide use in the countries that produce cacao, the raw material of chocolate.
- Lead and cadmium, probably from processing techniques.
- Saturated fats and hydrogenated ‘trans’ fats. Fats that are solid at room temperature, such as palm and coconut oils, are proven to increase ‘bad’ cholesterol, while hydrogenated fats are implicated in a wide variety of health problems.
Eating chocolate with less sugar, and choosing organic and artisan chocolate products, will go a long way towards minimizing any health risks. But that’s not the only reason to avoid conventionally grown chocolate . . .
The Politics of Chocolate
Chocolate is made from cacao beans (also called cocoa beans), the fruit of a small tropical rainforest tree. The major growers of cacao are the African countries of Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria, as well as Indonesia and Brazil. These are Third World countries producing a First World luxury product. Many of the workers are not paid a living wage and work under deplorable conditions, including child slavery. Under international pressure, some of the big chocolate companies are expected to certify "slavery free" chocolate from the Ivory Coast, but this is only addressing the grossest of human rights abuses.
The environmental costs of growing cacao can also be very high. Because of the ever-increasing demand for chocolate, much irreplaceable original rainforest has been cleared for monoculture cacao plantations. The largest growers, the ones most likely to supply major chocolate manufacturers, use many toxic pesticides on their crops as a further detriment to the environment. To learn more about the effort to increase responsible, sustainable cocoa farming visit The World Cocoa Foundation.
Some chocolate manufacturers have also started examining how their raw material is grown. We now have the choice to support companies that directly address the human rights and environmental problems associated with modern chocolate production. Here’s a list of words to look for as you shop:
- Organic Chocolate. Only about 20% of cacao is grown using pesticides because many smaller growers cannot afford to buy them or transport them to their remote farms. These pesticide-free beans are not necessarily certified "organic" for the same reasons—it costs money to pay for certification and remote farms may not be reachable by inspectors. There’s probably a lot more pesticide-free cacao than is certified organic. Major chocolate manufacturers buy from the large monocrop plantations that are most likely to use pesticides. Artisan chocolate companies that maintain direct relationships with small growers typically give information about how the beans they use are grown, even if they are not certified organic.
- Shade Grown Chocolate. Cacao’s natural habitat exists under the taller trees of the rainforest canopy. Instead of bulldozing rainforest for cacao production, new farming practices grow the cacao in that natural shade. Besides saving habitat, shade grown cacao often has a richer, deeper flavor.
- Fair Trade Chocolate. The concept of Fair Trade arose from concerns that buyers in First World countries had for the often wretched working conditions in the Third World countries that harvested the product. Fair Trade programs certify that workers are provided with a living wage, the security of long-term trading contracts, minimum health and safety conditions, and other benefits most people in First World countries take for granted. Much as with organic chocolate, not all chocolate produced in accordance with fair trade practices is certified.
Usually, concerns for organic or sustainable growing practices, habitat preservation, and for fair trade practices are conjoined—companies that care about one issue usually care about them all.
The Wise Chocolate Consumer
To make informed decisions about the chocolate that you purchase and consume, visit the Chocolate Glossary for a list of common terms.
The most obvious healthy choice you can make is to reduce the amount of sugar you consume by chocolate and regulate the type of sugar that your chocolate contains.
- Cacao nibs, cocoa powder, and baking chocolate have no added sugar and can be sweetened however you like.
- Dark and bittersweet chocolate products also have much less sugar than milk chocolate—in general, the darker the chocolate the better.
- Also look for chocolates sweetened with barley malt or evaporated cane juice, both of which are less refined products and thus contain more nutrients than white sugar.
For recipes using natural sweeteners, visit Sweet Savvy. Buying certified organic chocolate ensures freedom from pesticide residues, but check artisan chocolate-makers’ Web sites for other pesticide-free chocolates as well. For more information, visit this database of artisan/organic chocolate manufacturers.
The Real Taste of Chocolate
Large-scale production chocolate companies buy thousands of tons of cacao beans annually and blend them to make a predictable product. They must buy from the biggest and cheapest producers in order to stay competitive and this economic fact is a barrier to their support of more just and environmentally sound farming practices. But the taste of real chocolate varies with locality as much as the taste of wine or coffee varies with geographical region. It probably comes as no surprise that small artisan chocolatiers, who generally support organic and fair trade practices, buy the most flavorful beans from small growers because they can charge more for their higher quality confections.
When you do buy artisan chocolate, in whatever form, take the time to savor it. Taking the time to linger over one quality chocolate bite of delight can be more satisfying, and will certainly be far healthier, than gulping down an entire bar of an inferior chocolate product. Chocolate was a sacred substance to the Aztecs and we still regard it as one of life’s more sublime pleasures. When treasured as a special treat, a little chocolate can go a long, long way.
Article Contributors: Debra Lynn Dadd