by Judy Palken, MNS, RD, LDN
Questions from a Reader:
I like to have chocolate every day. I do choose dark chocolate, which I’ve heard is better for me. Is this okay for my health, and will it interfere with attempts to improve my gut bacteria by diet?
Reader, good questions! You will be happy to hear, the news regarding chocolate is very good, overall, with a caveat which we will get to.
Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which grows off the Theobroma cacao tree in the rainforest. It is nutrient-rich, containing the minerals copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains phytochemicals called polyphenols that have antioxidant activity and health benefits.
The health benefits of chocolate come primarily from the cocoa, which is just one component of chocolate. The more cocoa content, the darker and more healthful the chocolate.
The Cardiovascular Benefits –
Chocolate contains a type of polyphenol called flavonols that are potent antioxidants, and seem to help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Chocolate polyphenols may also lower LDL-cholesterol – another cardiovascular benefit.
The Gut Benefits –
Our beneficial gut bacteria actually help us to digest and absorb the polyphenols in chocolate. They ferment them into smaller molecules that can be more easily absorbed and then exert their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. In other words, we need to thank our bacteria for helping us to derive the benefit from chocolate!
Cocoa is a prebiotic in its own right – it contains fiber that bacteria feed on and metabolize into short chain fatty acids in the gut – a beneficial end product.
Cocoa-rich drinks have also been shown to increase the proportion of beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, compared to the bacteria we want less of.
So, what should we do with this good news about chocolate? We should enjoy this rich, complex, and wonderful food as people have since ancient times, for its health benefits as well as its unique and delectable flavor. But here is the caveat – besides the cocoa, chocolate also has a lot of fat and sugar. Hence the need for moderation – rich, chocolatey desserts and milk chocolate bars must be viewed simply as indulgent treats. They are not what is meant when you hear those words, chocolate is good for you!
However… a couple of squares of dark chocolate (70% or higher cacao) is good for you! Cocoa powder is great!
So is cacao – and what is the difference, besides the spelling? Cacao powder is from cold-pressed, un-roasted cacao beans. Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been chopped up into pieces. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that has been roasted. So cacoa powder is less processed, but cocoa powder is still very good for you, full of polyphenols and minerals, and is less expensive. Just be sure what you buy does not have added sugar – look for cocoa powder, not cocoa mix, with its added sugar and salt!
Anyway, back to your incredibly healthful dark chocolate squares, or cocoa powder – consider joining these with some other prebiotic foods to further feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Here are some delicious chocolate-with-other-prebiotic combinations:
- Dark chocolate with blueberries, just the two of them together in your best china bowl, or in a smoothie, or on yogurt
- Banana pieces coated in dark chocolate
- Cocoa powder on your regular or steel cut oatmeal
- Oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate pieces
- Chia seed pudding with cocoa powder (see recipe)
- For hot cocoa, best to make your own – follow the directions on your package of pure cocoa powder – use skim or low fat milk, cocoa powder, and a bit of sweetener, the advantage being that you can use much less sweetener than in commercially-prepared formulations, and be more generous with the cocoa! (you will always have more control over the ingredients, and can make foods more healthfully, when you do the preparation yourself).
Recipes using Cocoa Powder
Chia Cocoa Pudding
3/4 cup unsweetened, organic plain soy milk (or another milk, such as almond or hemp)
1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract (no sugar added)
3 Tbsp chia seeds *
1 Tbsp pure cocoa powder
Add all ingredients to a jar or bowl in the order listed – milk first. Whisk or stir well with a fork until the cocoa powder is well-combined with the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. Before eating, mix well again.
The thickness can be adjusted to your taste – for a thicker pudding, use more chia seeds; for a thinner consistency use less. Experiment to see how you like it.
This is great for dessert, breakfast, or a snack.
Cocoa Blueberry Smoothie
3/4 cup unsweetened, organic plain soy milk
1/2 cup frozen unsweetened blueberries
1 Tbsp pure cocoa powder
1 Tbsp oat bran
Directions: Mix all in a blender to desired consistency. Vary amounts of soy milk or blueberries to have your smoothie be more or less thick.
The oat bran gives this smoothie a nice, nutty consistency. Delicious!
You can find more at http://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/ibd/ibd-aid/