Halloween is but days away. From now until January, holiday season is officially upon us. And we all know that during the next several months chocolate takes a starring role on every dessert menu and table.
But, if we’re being honest, feasting on chocolate knows no season! Chocolate 365 days a year sounds like a perfectly wonderful plan.
And let’s face it, since the pandemic + Trump = despair, at no other time in our known history have we felt so wrecked by EVERYTHING. Or more deserving of treats to comfort our heart-broken selves. Or more in love with chocolate as one dependable self soothing option that the pandemic and Trump can’t sully.
So because the odds are you will be more inclined to indulge now more than ever, let’s take a closer look at chocolate in all her glory. What is it about chocolate that makes it so irresistible or even, dare I say, addictive?
You may be wondering: Is chocolate really healthy?
The answer, surprisingly, is that dark chocolate offers real health benefits. We’ll dive into those later in this post.
But first, let’s talk about ingredients and making better choices.
While pure cocoa is best, this is probably way too bitter for anyone with a sweet tooth.
It’s best to choose dark chocolate made with as few ingredients as possible.
The best dark chocolate always has chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. There may be several forms of cocoa listed, such as cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and cocoa butter. All of these are acceptable additions to dark chocolate.
Dark chocolates typically contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.
Sometimes other ingredients are added to dark chocolate to improve its appearance, flavor and shelf life. Some of these ingredients are harmless, while others can have a negative impact on the overall quality of the chocolate.
Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% or higher cocoa content. You might want to check out this guide on how to find good dark chocolate.
But the best rule of thumb when you want to go for the healthiest chocolate treat, pick one that is 85% cocoa or more. More bitter, yes, but healthier.
The darker the chocolate, the better it is for your brain, memory, heart and weight loss.
Scientists from Louisiana State University, led by Professor John Finley, report
The good gut microbes, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feast on chocolate. When you eat dark chocolate, they grow and ferment it, producing compounds that are anti-inflammatory.
Researchers determined that eating dark chocolate is really good for memory, especially for baby boomers.
These abundant phenolic plant compounds have marked antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to be responsible for much of the health benefit ascribed to chocolate consumption.
Dr. Steka’s article also stated that flavanols can help reduce blood pressure. Having high blood pressure, of course, is very unhealthy and can even lead to stroke.
Flavanols are also thought to help regulate your mood and even depression.
The darker the chocolate, the more flavanols. But some manufacturers actually remove them because it’s these anti-oxidants that make chocolate taste bitter.
Some research suggests that dark chocolate helps improve insulin sensitivity.
Controlling insulin, the hormone responsible for shuttling sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells where it can be used for energy, is key to weight loss. Decreased levels of insulin in the blood are associated with increased weight loss and reduced fat storage.
Although more research is needed, some small studies have also found that dark chocolate may help improve blood sugar control.
This may help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, which can lead to symptoms like increased hunger.
Studies show that dark chocolate may reduce cravings and promote feelings of fullness, which may help support weight loss.
In one small study comparing the effects of milk chocolate and dark chocolate found that participants felt less hungry and more full and satisfied after eating dark chocolate. Furthermore, they also consumed 17% fewer calories at a subsequent meal, compared with participants who ate milk chocolate.
Another small study of postmenopausal women showed that consuming dark chocolate led to greater reductions in food intake, compared with eating white and milk chocolate.
Still, more research is needed to evaluate how dark chocolate may affect appetite and food intake, compared with other foods but these results look promising.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate don’t offer the health benefits of dark chocolate, and they’re more addictive.
Sorry milk chocolate lovers, milk chocolate does make the health cut.
Neither does white chocolate which, technically, isn’t even chocolate at all. While made of cocoa butter, it is devoid of cocoa solids and cocoa powder altogether.
As a kid I adored white chocolate. Picture my sad, sad face.
According to this article in the Washington Post,
Absent of nibs, “white chocolate is basically just sweet fat,” says Clay Gordon, creator of the Chocolate Life website, “with a melt that is unencumbered by the nonfat cocoa solids, or cocoa powder.” For a chocolate to be labeled as chocolate, as opposed to candy, the Food and Drug Administration requires that the bar be made up of at least 10 percent cocoa mass (nibs plus the cocoa fat inherent to the bean) , with no specifications about cocoa butter. White chocolate, on the other hand, has to have a cocoa butter content of at least 20 percent and does not require the inclusion of nibs.
Milk and white chocolate, loaded with sugar and fat, deliver that feel-good dopamine hit with a wallop.
Milk and white chocolate should just be labeled highly-processed chocolate imposters. Edible, yes, but devoid of any nourishment.
It’s the processed sugars, salts and fats that make these varieties so yummy — which is also what makes them so addictive.
“The more processed food is, the more addictive it is,” says Nicole Avena, assistant professor at Mount Sinai Medical School and a visiting professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology. “We don’t yet know exactly why this is, but I think the issue is that processed foods are man-made concoctions that are designed to taste good, and milk chocolate has a much higher dose of sugar than you’d ever see in nature. We have done many studies in this area, and found that among the foods that are most addictive, chocolate is at the top, and the chocolate people tend to really crave is milk chocolate, which generally has a lot of added sugars. Darker versions are often less preferred because they do not contain the sugar and the milk.”
Self-control can easily fly out the window when facing a milk chocolate candy bar. Because your brain is so pumped full of feel-good hormones, one bite is never enough.
Additionally, with each and every bite your brain forms positive associations. That happy brain of yours is delighted to bookmark that experience! And request it on repeat.
Texture and creamy viscosity also have a role to play. You will notice how each bite of chocolate melts on your tongue. Touch receptors on your tongue can detect the textural change, which also stimulates feelings of pleasure.
Fueling the vicious cycle is the possibility that the neurons that create dopamine can down-regulate.
Due to the dopamine overload, this means they just stop making as much dopamine when triggered. So you need eat more and more chocolate to get the same feel-good response you remember.
In this respect, chocolate acts just like a drug. The more you eat over time, the more you need to get that happy high.
And it’s possible that you may crave certain components in chocolate that your body may becomes deficient in, especially magnesium and antioxidants.