Bryan J. Spratt, CFA, portfolio manager/research analyst at Miller/Howard Investments specializing in infrastructure investments, Woodstock, New York. MHInvest.com
We see headlines all the time that tout the health benefits of chocolate. As a result, many people take that as a free pass to eat way more chocolate than is good for them. What the headlines don’t tell you: Chocolate, as most of us know it, is full of sugar and fat. It is chocolate’s main ingredient—cocoa—that is good for you. So, put down those commercially made chocolate bars and learn how to get the real health benefits of this incredible ingredient, even if you are already a die-hard “chocoholic.”
The first thing you need to know: The health claims are real. Research from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that those who ate chocolate two or more times per week following a heart attack reduced their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 66%. And Spanish researchers recently found that consumption of chocolate reduced inflammation, a major component of many degenerative diseases.
Cocoa is made from the dried seed of the cacao tree, which is loaded with natural compounds called flavanols, plant nutrients with antioxidant properties. These flavanols can prevent fatlike substances in the bloodstream from clogging your arteries, have anti-inflammatory properties and can help the body produce nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates and relaxes arteries, improving circulation and reducing blood pressure.
Best: Whenever possible, use organic raw cocoa powder as an ingredient in your recipes. It consists of 100% cocoa. Even though pure cocoa has a bitter taste, you need only use a small amount at a time to get the health benefits—and then the bitterness won’t come through. Examples: Add one to two tablespoons of cocoa powder to shakes and smoothies…or sprinkle it on fruit. Use it as a spice on vegetables and in salad dressings and soups. Of course, you can bake with it—and use it in a surprising variety of savory recipes, including chili, sauces and meat dishes.
Several companies make excellent organic raw cocoa powder products (raw cocoa and cocoa powder are the same thing). Brands to try: Sunfood Chocolate Cacao Powder, 16 ounces for $18.95 (888-729-3663, www.Sunfood.com) and Navitas Naturals Raw Cacao Powder, eight ounces for $9.99 (888-645-4282, www.NavitasNaturals.com).
This type of cocoa is different from the type you buy in the baking section of the supermarket. Raw cocoa is cold-pressed (not cooked) to remove the fat. It provides more than three times as much antioxidant flavanols as cocoa that is made from fermented and roasted beans.
Second best: Know how to choose the most healthful chocolate bar. Organic dark chocolate—with a minimum of chemicals, processing and added sugar—is better for you than milk chocolate or white chocolate (both have no cocoa at all). Look for bars that have 60% to 85% cocoa. Choose those with the fewest ingredients. (Many chocolate bars have a host of unpronounceable ingredients and preservatives.) Choose bars with cocoa solids or cocoa mass as the first ingredient, not sugar. Avoid those with milk, which negates the effects of the flavanols. Brand to try: Scharffen Berger Extra Dark Chocolate or Bittersweet Chocolate, $4.95 for a three-ounce bar (866-972-6879, www.Scharffenberger.com), available at specialty grocery stores, such as Whole Foods. Savor a square or two of high-quality chocolate several times a week (no more)—and you will safely reap the benefits of cocoa.
For some people, eating chocolate can trigger addiction-like behavior. If you are one of those people who can’t stop at one or two squares, it might be best to avoid chocolate bars altogether and instead use cocoa powder. Or there are supplements with cocoa flavanols that offer the cardiovascular benefits of cocoa without the calories or the fat of a chocolate bar. Example: ReserveAge Ultimate Antioxidant, which has 100 milligrams of a standardized cocoa extract per capsule (800-553-1896, www.ReserveAge.com).