Q: A reader from the “Show Me” state of Missouri writes: “I always enjoy reading your articles in the Jefferson City News Tribune, and I have a question that I hope you can answer. I have read that dark chocolate is good for your health, one of the reasons being due to the flavonoids. I have also read that if chocolate is processed with alkali, it kills or eliminates most of the flavonoids. Do you happen to know of a company that does not process their dark chocolate with alkali? Also, am I correct about this process? I would very much appreciate your opinion on this matter.”
A: You are correct that dark chocolate contains flavonoids, a family of polyphenols that protect our health, according to a review by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These antioxidant substances help to control inflammatory processes that contribute to heart disease and diabetes. Because dark chocolate has more cocoa and less sugar than milk chocolate, it is a more potent source of these beneficial flavonoids.
Wouldn’t that be great if we could improve our blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and blood sugar by eating hot fudge sundaes every day? But hold your Hershey’s. Those beneficial polyphenols in cocoa are bitter and astringent to the taste buds. When chocolate is processed to make it more wonderfully palatable, some of those healthful components are lost.
Dutch processed cocoa, for example, is made with a potassium (alkali) solution to neutralize its acidity. It can lose a substantial amount of antioxidant-rich polyphenols during this procedure. According to the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, natural unsweetened cocoa powder can deliver up to 90 percent more antioxidants than Dutch-processed chocolate. Cocoa beans can also lose some of their beneficial components during normal roasting.
To get the most flavonoids from your chocolate, buy better quality chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids, and check the ingredient label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires chocolate products prepared with alkalizing ingredients to bear the statement “Processed with alkali.”
By the way, I was reminded by the Ghiradelli folks in San Francisco that cocoa beans are not really beans. They are seeds from a fruit that grows on a tree. Examples of Ghiradelli products made without alkali include their chocolate baking chips, 100 percent unsweetened cocoa, and Intense Dark (86 percent cacao) bars and squares.
Lastly, my opinion is this: Chocolate is a fun food, to be eaten occasionally as a treat. Hurray for you if you enjoy the darker, more bitter tasting varieties with higher amounts of beneficial antioxidants. You won’t be killing yourself if you eat a Dutch-processed chocolate on occasion either. You are hopefully getting a host of flavonoids in your diet from sources other than chocolate, such as vegetables and fruit.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at email@example.com .