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Is chocolate good for us?

An explanation of cocoa solids, cocoa, cocoa butter and what else is in chocolate

By Roger French

Chocolate lovers around the world have no doubt been delighted to hear in recent years that chocolate may, after all, be good for us – or at least not so bad. If true, this is rather fortunate considering the stuff is so delicious and more-ish.

One study revealed that 50% of women prefer chocolate to sex, and a 2007 British study suggested that some people find dark chocolate more rewarding than passionate kissing. No wonder many people find moderation difficult with chocolate.

Despite chocolate being typically loaded with calories, fat and refined sugar, researchers have identified some definite benefits. But first, what is in chocolate?

CHOCOLATE – JUST WHAT IS IT?

Chocolate is made from fermented, roasted and ground cocoa beans. To begin the chocolate-making process, the cocoa bean is harvested, fermented, dried, roasted and then winnowed, meaning the shell is taken off leaving the cocoa nib. The nib is then ground to powder which results in what is known as cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. This can be used as is or further processed.

Further processing will see the cocoa liquor/mass fed in to hydraulic presses, which are used to squeeze out most of the fat from the cocoa mass. The fat that is squeezed out is called cocoa butter, and the residue of solid particles remaining in the press is essentially cocoa powder. What we know in our kitchens as ‘cocoa powder’ is actually dehydrated cocoa powder.

Normal cocoa powder does contain some fat because the extraction process is not very efficient. ‘Low-fat’ cocoa contains about 9% cocoa butter (it must be less than 10%) and ‘high-fat’ cocoa contains about 21% fat. Most kitchen cocoa is the high-fat version.

The term, cocoa solids, which is regularly used in ingredients lists, is the total percentage of all cocoa bean products in the chocolate. That is, cocoa liquor + cocoa powder + cocoa butter = cocoa solids.

Cocoa butter is the pale-yellow, edible vegetable fat of the cocoa bean. Typically cocoa butter is about 55% of the cocoa bean and the remaining 45% is lowish-fat cocoa. Cocoa butter is made hard in chocolate by mixing it with varying amounts of cocoa powder. The butter is also used to make pharmaceuticals, ointments and toiletries.

The proportion of cocoa butter in a chocolate is what determines its fluidity when melted. This is very significant for the ‘mouth feel’ of a chocolate; low-fat chocolates tend to coat the mouth with a clingy residue. The fat content is particularly important if the chocolate is to be used for dipping or moulding, both of which require very fluid chocolate. For a chocolate to go nicely fluid when it melts, it needs to have the content of cocoa butter above 38%.

Cocoa butter has a melting point of around 34 to 38?C so that chocolate is solid at room temperature but melts readily in the mouth.

Chocolate’s characteristic flavour and colour are almost entirely due to the cocoa solids, except when there are added flavours such as mint, orange or dried fruit. Cocoa butter has some aroma, but contributes very little to overall flavour. Rather, cocoa butter provides smoothness and a low melting point – to melt in the mouth.

The smoothness of a particular chocolate is only partly due to the fat content. It is much more due to the fineness of the cocoa liquor. The more finely ground the cocoa liquor, the smoother the chocolate.

Cocoa solids contain high levels of antioxidants, which is why the healthy chocolates are those that are high in cocoa solids and low in cocoa butter. So the aim is to find chocolate with high cocoa solids and low cocoa butter.

DARK, MILK AND WHITE CHOCOLATE

The three common kinds of chocolate vary in their proportions of cocoa powder and cocoa fat. They also contain sugar and may contain other ingredients like milk, vanilla or other flavourings.
   Dark chocolate is made by combining cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar.

   Milk chocolate contains cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar and milk powder. Having a lower cocoa content, milk chocolate contains less antioxidant than dark chocolate.

   White chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all; it is made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk products (typically milk powder and butterfat).

   Cooking chocolate is a milk chocolate with a higher content of sugar and less milk than regular milk chocolate.

The more expensive chocolates often have cocoa powder before cocoa butter in the ingredients list – resulting in a lower-fat chocolate and more antioxidants. In these chocolates, the percentage of cocoa solids could be as high as 70% or even 85%. The cocoa butter adds smoothness and softness, so the less cocoa butter, the less smoothness and the harder the chocolate.

Because the cocoa solids percentage given on the label refers only to the combined amount of cocoa liquor, cocoa powder and cocoa butter, the proportions of each can vary among chocolates that have the same cocoa solids percentage.

So if a manufacturer sets out to make a dark couverture chocolate with the currently fashionable 70% cocoa, it will contain 30% sugar provided there are no other ingredients. It will need to contain 40% cocoa butter for fluidity, which will result in a cocoa powder content of 30%.

If the goal is to produce an 85% cocoa chocolate, the sugar would be only 15%. To keep cocoa butter content to 40% would result in cocoa solids being 45%, which would be far too bitter. So the manufacturer will have no choice but to lower the solids and increase the butter, and could end up with something like 48% cocoa butter, 37% cocoa solids and 15% sugar, which will melt easily and be expensive.

When the ingredients label says ‘cocoa butter’, it’s referring to the added cocoa butter that is in addition to that naturally present in the cocoa mass/liquor which is already about half cocoa butter.

When making a chocolate bar, most manufacturers add some extra cocoa butter to the cocoa liquor and sometimes cocoa powder as well. This enables the desired fat content to be obtained – cocoa butter percentages range from as low as 30% to as high as 55%.

IS CHOCOLATE GOOD FOR US?

This is the million-dollar question – we would all love it to be good for us. However, it is basically solid saturated fat plus cocoa powder plus refined sugar, so it doesn’t look too good at first sight. But in recent years, researchers have been digging deeper.

Their findings are summarised in an article entitled, ‘A little of what you fancy does you good: or great news about chocolate’, by John Livesey, PhD, Scientific Officer, Department of Endocrinology, Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand. Here is a summary of the key points in that article:

Long regarded as seductive but highly calorific and guilt-inducing junk-food, chocolate now appears to have some remarkable health benefits. In a recent Dutch study(1) 470 elderly men with an average age of 72 were assessed in 1985, and by year 2000 some 67% of them had died. It was found that the one-third of men who consumed the largest amounts of cocoa-containing food (average 4.2 grams of cocoa per day) had a 45 to 50% lower death rate than did the one-third who consumed no cocoa. Also, the high-cocoa group had a similarly marked reduction in death rate from heart disease. It is significant that more than half of the cocoa consumed was in chocolate, of which 28% was dark and 22% milk.

It is notable how little chocolate was consumed in order to bring about this major reduction in mortality. Four grams of cocoa would be contained in a mere 13 grams of dark chocolate with a cocoa content of around 48% or in six grams of a chocolate with a cocoa content of 70%. This amounts to just two or three squares of typical chocolate blocks per day.

Another welcome surprise was that the chocolate consumers were no heavier than the abstainers in spite of the fact that they consumed 300 more calories. This suggests that a moderate intake of cocoa increases the basal metabolic rate [meaning that we are continually burning calories faster].

The researchers concluded that the beneficial effects of eating chocolate appeared to be due to the cocoa content rather than any variation in sugar consumption.

Generally, chocolate contains:

  • Protein – needed for cell maintenance and repair.

  • Fat – varies, but chocolate is generally 30 – 45 per cent fat, of which over half is saturated fat.

  • VitaminE – a fat-soluble vitamin essential for cell membranes.

  • Calcium, phosphorusandmagnesium – minerals essential for strong bones and teeth.

  • Iron – needed to form haemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood.

  • Caffeineandtheobromine – nervous system stimulants.

  • Copper– assists iron metabolism, formation of the pigment melanin (in hair and skin) and functioning of the central nervous system.

  • Sugar (refined) – varies, but often makes up about 50 per cent.

  • Antioxidant phytochemicals (mainly flavonoids) – cocoa beans contain more than 600 phytochemicals, including antioxidants, that may protect against heart disease and cancer.

It was as recently as 1996 that it was discovered that cocoa contains polyphenols in the form of flavonoids which are powerful antioxidants. Chocolate and cocoa have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance (heading off type-2 diabetes) and have anti-inflammatory properties.(2) It has been reported recently that cocoa significantly decreases the amount of damage done to human skin by ultraviolet light.(3) The flavonoids in cocoa help blood vessels work more smoothly and possibly reduce the risk of heart disease. White chocolate containing no cocoa – so no flavonoids – does not have any effect on blood pressure.

Researchers say that these findings do not suggest that people with high blood pressure should eat lots of dark chocolate. More research is needed to determine just how much chocolate people can eat in order to acquire cardio-protective benefits without causing harm elsewhere in the body.

When cocoa is processed into chocolate, it goes through several steps to reduce its naturally bitter taste, which is the taste of the flavonoids. The more processing that is applied – namely, fermentation, alkalising and/or roasting – the more flavonoids are lost. Dark chocolate appears to retain the highest levels of flavonoids, hence there is a preference – from the aspect of nutrition – for bitter-sweet dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate is also mood boosting due to its content of methylxanthines in the form of caffeine, theobromine and theophylline, which increase alertness and make us feel good. However, we must remember that caffeine is a powerful nerve stimulant that can rev up our systems now but leave us drained later.

An interesting question is – can we get the benefits of the flavonoids from a cup of hot cocoa rather than chocolate, and so avoid the high fat and sugar content of chocolate. Unfortunately, if the cocoa powder has been treated with alkali to make it less acidic and give it a more chocolatey flavour, most of the polyphenols in the cocoa will have been destroyed.

In summary, bitter-sweet dark chocolate contains plenty of cocoa but less refined sugar, so this is the best kind of chocolate. But whether or not it is good for us to eat even bitter-sweet dark chocolate regularly for many years is a good question.

The cautious answer to this question is that chocolate is not a ‘health food’. If we indulge in anything other than small quantities of dark chocolate, it is quite possible that the unhealthy ingredients will outweigh the antioxidants and minerals

The only true health foods are fruits and vegetables in abundance accompanied by moderate quantities of nuts, legumes, seeds and wholegrain cereals assembled together into a well-balanced diet. This is undoubtedly the best way to look after our bodies.

However, the evidence indicates that it is reasonable to enjoy, guilt-free, small to moderate amounts of dark chocolate a few times a week. But remember to also eat other flavonoid-rich foods like blueberries, cherries, cranberries, red apples, red cabbage, purple onions, green and white tea and maybe a little red wine. 

REFERENCES FOR ‘IS CHOCOLATE GOOD FOR US?’

  1. Buijsse Bet al., Archives of Internal Medicine 2006; 166:411

  2. Di Giuseppe R et al, Journal of Nutrition 2008; 138:1939-45

  3. Heinrich U et al, Journal of Nutrition 2006; 136:1565-9.

(Published Natural Health and Vegetarian Life, Autumn 2009.)