Chocolate is an incredible source of powerful compounds that have a number of potential health and performance benefits, including:

  • Increased blood flow to the brain. (R)
  • Reduced signs of brain aging. (R)
  • Reduced oxidative stress. (R)
  • Improved skin appearance. (R)
  • Better cognitive function. (R, R)
  • Enhanced athletic endurance. (R)
  • Increased protective HDL. (R)
  • Better metabolic health via increased sensitivity to the hormone insulin. (R)

But how do you make sure you're getting the healthiest bang for your buck when you buy chocolate, which is how cocoa is most commonly consumed?

Here are the 5 things to look out for when purchasing your chocolate.

1. Ensure your chocolate is free of emulsifiers.

To take cocoa and turn it into chocolate, you technically only need 3 ingredients: Cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and a sweetener. But many bars on the market are loaded with extra ingredients that likely serve no purpose to you and may even be harmful. Take commercial emulsifiers for example. These are often added to foods to create a smooth and creamy "mouth feel." They are most commonly found in ice creams, salad dressings, coffee creamers, and chocolate bars.

Two particular emulsifiers, carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80, have been shown in animal models to powerfully disrupt the gut microbiome and degrade the mucosa. (R) The mucosa is sort of like a slimy hammock that keeps the bacterial content of the gut and your immune system at a comfortable distance from one another. Humble as it may sound, a robust mucosa is critically important to good health. By damaging this barrier, emulsifiers can be a powerful instigator of inflammation. This can potentially drive chronic inflammatory disease or make symptoms worse in pre-existing disease. It can also cause weight gain and reduced metabolism.

The good news is that these are usually listed on the ingredients list. Simply check the ingredients to make sure that there is no carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 in your chocolate (or anything else you consume).

2. Make sure your chocolate hasn't been processed with alkali.

This is also referred to as Dutch processing. Dutch processing is meant to give cocoa a smoother, more mellow flavor. It is also used to darken cocoa, giving it its more characteristic deep brown hue. Unfortunately, this method greatly also degrades the health value of cocoa.

Image source: judymatusky.com 

Image source: judymatusky.com 

Polyphenols are the compounds in chocolate said to have massive benefits on our health, ranging from increased athletic performance to healthier vascular function to better cognitive performance. Chocolate is actually one of the top dietary sources of polyphenols (R), but Dutch processing directly degrades the polyphenol content of chocolate. (R)

The ingredients list will usually say whether the cocoa has been processed with alkali. Above is an image I found online of two seemingly identical packages of cocoa, yet one has been processed with alkali and one has not. Always go for the one that hasn't been processed by alkali.

3. Opt for 85% cocoa content or higher.

Dark chocolate contains cocoa content ranging from 70% to 99%. The higher the cocoa content, the less sugar will be in the bar. This is better for your health, but also for your willpower. You might find that when you stick with a bar that contains 85% or higher cocoa, you can "safely" consume a few bites and feel satiated without feeling like you need to consume the whole bar in one sitting. But why is this so?

Below 85% and chocolate tends to veer into a territory known as "hyperpalatability," a term used by food scientists to describe food that is "impossibly delicious." Only processed foods take on this quality, which is usually engineered to drive insatiable consumption on par with drugs of abuse. A food that is hyperpalatable usually includes a pleasing mouth texture, salt, sugar, and fat. Ring a bell? Chocolate!

Chocolate below 85% has all of the qualities that make a food "hyperpalatable"—avoid these to gain more benefits in less calories, and you'll be doing your willpower a favor in the process.

4. Skip white chocolate or milk chocolate.

These variants are usually just candy with minimal cocoa content (if at all, as in the case of white chocolate) and loads of sugar.

5. Reach for organic.

The benefits of eating organic foods are not just in reduced exposure to pesticide and herbicide residues. Many of the most health-promotive contents of food are their polyphenols, which are created by plants as a defense mechanism to predators (i.e. pests and fungi). When this need is taken away from them, they produce less. By reaching for organic, you're ensuring higher polyphenol content across the board.

6. Avoid lead and cadmium contamination

Lead. Stay out of my chocolate!

Lead. Stay out of my chocolate!

Lead exposure has been a significant public health issue for decades. That's because it's linked to a variety of neurological impairments, including learning disabilities, seizures, and a lower IQ.

Developing fetuses and children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure because their brains are in critical growth and development stages. No level of lead is safe for children.

Cadmium can cause damage to the kidney, liver, and bones, while also impairing neurobehavioral development.

Lead and cadmium are both classified as reproductive toxins.

What does this have to do with chocolate? Both of these compounds have been detected in chocolate. Internet watchdog organization As You Sow has conducted independent laboratory testing of 70 chocolate products for lead and cadmium. They found that 45 of the 70 chocolate products contain lead and/or cadmium above the safe harbor threshold of California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65).

To see As You Sow's list of chocolate which contain higher than acceptable amounts of lead and cadmium, as well as their "green light" varieties, click here.

Do you have a favorite brand? Let me know in the comments below!

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