With recent interest surrounding whether chocolate is a health food, I am regularly asked: "Is chocolate a health food?" What's the deal?
It seems like everyday, there's a news report about a medical study confirming chocolate is, in fact, good for heart health, cardiovascular health, and even diabetes. This is added to what we already know about chocolate: it doesn't really cause acne and a chemical inside chocolate actually inhibits the formation of cavities.
Of course, the real answers are not so cut and dry.
Chocolate does have wellness—I prefer that term to health—benefits. But everything meant to improve the flavor of chocolate reduces the number and quantity of the chemicals that are good for us. Also, chocolate is a fairly high fat food, and even though cocoa butter, the fat in chocolate, is a "good" fat (like olive oil) with positive impact on cholesterol metabolism, it's still fat. So don't forget to compensate for the intake of fat calories by cutting back elsewhere.
Take Advantage of Chocolate's Wellness Benefits
Maybe the best way is by eating cacao seeds straight from the pod. Unfortunately, too few of us are in the position to experience this. The seeds are really not that tasty either because the chemicals responsible for many of chocolate's wellness benefits, are very bitter.
Raw chocolate, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder—because they are minimally processed—retain more of the wellness-giving nutrients. They can be an acquired taste, however, because they also retain a lot of bitterness. Go with roasted cocoa nibs and low-fat natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder, available in every health food store and most regular grocery stores in the baking aisle. It doesn't take much. Only a tablespoon a day or so.
Chocolate for Breakfast?
And why not incorporate cocoa into the most important meal of the day? No, I am not advocating overly-sweet chocolate-flavored kids' breakfast cereals. As we approach the winter months—when warmth and comfort are priorities—consider tossing cocoa nibs on top of hot breakfast cereals such as oatmeal, farina, or a toasted wheat cereal.
You can also mix in half cocoa powder and half cinnamon to spice up your morning hot cereal. If you like pancakes (and really, who doesn't?), adding cocoa powder to any pancake mix means never having leftovers. Or what about a triple chocolate scone made with cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and a few chopped bittersweet chocolate pieces to go along with walnuts or pecans?
The Rest of the Day
Moving on to other meals, cocoa nibs are a great addition to the texture of salads, and can be incorporated into a variety of baked goods. I like adding cocoa powder to gravies as a thickener, replacing flour or cornstarch in many stews, and using cocoa powder with balsamic vinegar and spices to add acidity, sweetness, depth, complexity, richness, and visual appeal to plated dishes, soups, and desserts.
A drop-dead delicious appetizer involves sprinkling cocoa nibs over Parmesan tuiles before they go into the oven, then garnishing them with piped dollop of goat cheese, thinned with milk and a chive. Another dessert-ish thing to consider: making your own chocolate syrup. Replace white sugar or corn syrup with agave nectar, Stevia, or some other alternative sweetener to control the sweetness and sugar levels. It also costs a lot less, and you can make it fresh.
Self-Proclaimed 'Healthy' Chocolate
I refuse to eat "healthy" chocolate. When I eat chocolate I want to feel good eating it, not good about eating it. The wellness benefits of chocolate are bonuses, not reasons for eating it. If I want to take vitamin supplements I take vitamin supplements; I don't want my chocolate to be turned into a vitamin supplement.
Do you have any other ideas on adding chocolate to your diet in a healthy way?
About the author: Clay Gordon has been a professional chocolate critic since 2001. His first book on chocolate, Discover Chocolate was selected as a finalist in the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2008 Cookbook of the Year Awards. A serious chocolate educator, Clay has created and moderates an online community for chocophiles and aspiring chocophiles - The Chocolate Life.