Nobody needs an excuse to eat chocolate – especially when studies validate its health benefits. It tastes like a win-win for chocolate lovers.
The health benefits of chocolate have been known for more than a thousand years. More recent studies link its consumption to improved cardiovascular health, increased cognition and even anti-aging benefits.
These are all good reasons to eat more of this sweet treat, right? Yet before you ramp up your intake, find out what it is about chocolate that is responsible for its health benefits and what you should know before that next indulgence.
The Secret Ingredient in Chocolate Is the Cocoa Polyphenols
Chocolate is made up of two components: cocoa solids (or powder) and cocoa butter. It is the cocoa powder in chocolate that contains polyphenols, known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This is where the true health benefits of chocolate arise. It’s all about the cocoa polyphenols.
Farm to Table: From Cacao to Cocoa to Chocolate
Cacao, pronounced 'ca-cow,' is believed to be a misspelling of 'cocoa' by early English traders.1 Cacao comes from the cacao tree, also known as Theobroma Cacao. It takes about five years for the cacao tree to be strong enough to produce pods that can be turned into cocoa. The tree will flower the entire year, and of the thousands of flowers it may only have 40 or so that turn into cacao pods. After six months, the pods are ready to be harvested. Pending the region, harvests may take place twice a year. Once the seeds (i.e., cacao beans) have been extracted from the pods, they go through a process called fermentation where they change in color from gray to brown to purple. Fermentation allows for the aromatic properties of cacao to develop as well. From there the beans are dried and then go off to be processed.2
During processing, cacao beans are roasted to further enhance flavor and aroma. The shells are then removed (winnowed) to produce cocoa nibs which are then ground into a paste called chocolate liquor (no alcohol here). Chocolate liquor is rich in polyphenols and incredibly bitter. It can be made into chocolate or further refined through a pressing process to extract the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. The cocoa solids can be pulverized into cocoa powder, which retain the polyphenol content in dry form.3 The cocoa butter is added to chocolate liquor to make chocolate. The proportion of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa solids differentiates the type of chocolate to be made.
Factors Impacting Total Polyphenol Content
Fermentation of the cacao bean comes with a significant loss of the polyphenol content, and a corresponding reduction of its considerable health benefits. The type of bean, where it is grown, and other factors like temperature, and potentially further alkali treatment of the cocoa powder, all play a role in the levels of remaining polyphenols.
Alkalization is the process of adding sodium hydroxide (lye) to the cocoa powder to reduce the levels of polyphenols to improve the taste, also known as “Dutch refining.” The more treated the cocoa powder, the greater the loss of polyphenols.
In addition to processing, the levels of polyphenols in cacao beans are highly dependent upon country of origin. It has been shown that a three-fold difference can exist in the range of total polyphenol content pending where the cacao trees are grown.4 Despite 30% of the worlds’ cacao being produced in the Ivory Coast, the raw cacao plants with the highest levels of polyphenols are actually grown in the highlands of Ecuador.5
What to Know Before Eating Your Next Piece of Chocolate
Not all chocolate is created equal. Some have a taste for sweet chocolate, white or milk chocolate that's high in fat and sugar. Others prefer bitter chocolate, dark chocolate with a stronger and more sharp taste. Dark chocolate is high in cocoa solids (powder) and contains the highest levels of polyphenols of any chocolate. The inclusion of milk as an ingredient differentiates milk chocolate from dark chocolate. Pure white chocolate is 100% cocoa butter, essentially pure fat, and while it may melt and your mouth, it’s devoid of any cocoa polyphenols.
Manufacturers add more ingredients like milk and sugar to make chocolate more appealing. As those extra ingredients pile up, the percentage “cocoa” in the final product goes down. The typical chocolate candy bar has about 10% “cocoa” with enough sugar and saturated fat to make it almost addictive.
While higher in cocoa polyphenols, consuming dark chocolate on a regular basis isn’t the most ideal. Some varieties contain 7 grams of saturated fat, supplying more than 35% of our daily intake, as well as a lot of sugar to increase the hedonic response (i.e., make it taste better). Furthermore, in these instances, there is virtually no protein to help stabilize blood sugar levels, which negates many of the health benefits of the remaining cocoa polyphenols.
The Creation of the ZoneRx Bar
To reap the health benefits that come with cocoa polyphenols may require higher levels to be consumed. One of the major considerations when consuming cacao and cocoa powders is that they naturally contain cadmium, a heavy metal. The problem is that to get adequate levels of cocoa polyphenols may lead to high intakes of heavy metals.
While the U.S. currently has no limit for intake, when we set out to create our ZoneRx Bar we wanted to get the maximum amount of polyphenols we could for health benefits, while keeping heavy metals low. To do so, we developed a proprietary cocoa extract using a unique purification process, that allowed us to retain the maximum polyphenol content while minimizing the level of heavy metals. This process allowed for the creation of the ZoneRx bar which contains the highest levels of polyphenols at 375 mg per bar.
Top 4 Chocolates with the Most Polyphenols:
#1: Cocoa Nibs
Nibs are considered chocolate in its purest form as they are simply crushed cacao beans. They are rich in polyphenols, fat, minerals (including the heavy metal, cadmium) and fiber and have a crunch like chocolate chips without the added sugar.
#2: Cocoa Powder
Once the fat is removed from the cocoa nibs and minimally processed into ground cocoa powder, it is higher in polyphenols on a per gram basis. This also makes it richer in naturally occurring heavy metals requiring you to limit the amount you consume.
#3: Dark Chocolate
Primarily made up of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and added sugar this not-so-naughty treat provides adequate amounts of polyphenols. Moderation is still key here with the fat and mineral content.
#4: Milk Chocolate
The addition of milk and greater amounts of sugar dilute the amount of polyphenols making this a not-so-great choice. The bright side is that compared the other choices its lower in naturally occurring metals.
Worst Chocolate for Polyphenols:
A New Health Benefit of Cocoa – Improved Gut Health
The greatest health benefits of cocoa polyphenols may ultimately come from their impact on gut health. The gut is the densest collection of microbes (anything too small to be seen by the human eye like bacteria and viruses) in the world. Some of these microbes can be a significant source of inflammation, which can impact both the blood and the brain. Therefore, because of their anti-inflammatory properties, it is likely that many of the health benefits of cocoa polyphenols come from their ability to improve gut health.
The more cocoa polyphenols you consume, the healthier your gut becomes. Think of polyphenols as the "gardeners of the gut." The more you have, the healthier your microbial garden becomes. This is why your knowledge of what’s in your chocolate not only determines the health of your gut, but ultimately the rest of your body.
- Lebovitz, David. The Great Book of Chocolate: The Chocolate Lover's Guide, with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2004. Print.
- From cocoa to chocolate. Available at: https://www.barry-callebaut.com/chocophilia/cocoa-chocolate. Accessed: May 1, 2017.
- Processing Cocoa. Available at: https://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/processing-cocoa.html. Accessed: May 2, 2017.
- Coffee and Cocoa. Available at: http://phenol-explorer.eu/reports/43. Accessed: May 1, 2017.
- Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries. World Atlas. http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-10-cocoa-producing-countries.html.