Dark chocolate, like purple grapes, berries and black and green tea, is packed with flavonoids, a phytochemical with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties. Research suggests that flavonoids man help protect the heart by lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol levels.
Numerous studies have hinted that dark chocolate may play a role in a heart healthy diet. In 2005, Italian researchers made headlines when they found that 100 grams of dark chocolate per day could help lower blood pressure and reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Two years later, German researchers found that just 6.3 grams, or 30 calories worth, of dark chocolate per day was sufficient to lower blood pressure.
And just last year, a European study of more than 19,000 adults found that those who ate the most dark chocolate, an average of 7.5 grams (or one square of a 100 gram bar), had lower blood pressure and were 39 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, compared to people who ate the least amount of chocolate.
The health benefits of chocolate are limited to dark chocolate, which contains the most flavonoids. Dark chocolate has approximately four times as many flavonoids as milk chocolate, while white chocolate has none. To maximize dark chocolate's heart health benefits, choose a dark chocolate bar with at least 70 percent cocoa content. The greater the percentage of cocoa solids in chocolate, the more flavonoids it contains.
While dark chocolate's health benefits are mounting, it's important to remember that chocolate is a source of calories, fat and sugar. Keep your portion size small - about 30 grams or 1 ounce. A little seems to go a long way.
Nutrient information per 30 grams (1 ounce) dark chocolate:
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
Dark chocolate can either be sweet, semi-sweet, bittersweet or unsweetened. Dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa solids has the most health benefits.
Sweet dark chocolate
Of all the types of dark chocolate, sweet dark chocolate often contains the least amount of cocoa solids, usually between 35-45%. It tastes very similar to semi-sweet chocolate.
This is classic dark baking chocolate, which can be purchased in most grocery stores. It's frequently used for cakes, cookies and brownies. It has a good, sweet flavor and often contains between 40-62% cocoa solids.
Good quality bittersweet chocolate contains between 60% to 85% cocoa solids. If the content of cocoa solids is high, bittersweet dark chocolate has a rich, intense and bitter chocolate flavor.
Unsweetened dark chocolate is too bitter to be eaten on its own, and is most often used in baking. Unsweetened chocolate can contain up to 100% cocoa solids.
The quality of chocolate depends both on the quality of the raw ingredients and on how they have been processed. Both the cocoa butter content and price of dark chocolate are indicators of quality. Always read the ingredient list of dark chocolate to make sure that you are buying real chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa solids.
Remember that not all chocolate labelled "dark" contains at least 70 percent cocoa. Both Nestle and Hershey carry a line of dark chocolate that contains 60 percent or less of cocoa solids. Lindt has a range of dark chocolate bars, called Excellence, that range in cocoa content from 70 to 99 percent, available at most major grocery stores.
Good quality dark chocolate should be shiny and free of lumps, bubbles and white specks. Avoid chocolate that is discoloured, grey, dull or crystallized, as these are an indication that the chocolate is old or has been improperly stored.
For maximum freshness, wrap opened chocolate in aluminum foil and then again in plastic and store it in a dry, cool place. Properly stored dark chocolate will stay fresh for up to one year. Chocolate is best stored between 20° and 22° C, such as a pantry, or dark cabinet. Avoid storing chocolate in the refrigerator.
Sometimes chocolate will "bloom", which is characterized by white or gray "clouds" or "blooms" on its surface, a grey, streaky, dull finish on the surface and a crumbly texture. Bloom is caused by moisture or temperature fluctuations, but does not mean the chocolate is spoiled. Melted for recipes, it behaves and tastes like any other melted chocolate.
You can freeze chocolate, but it is more likely to bloom, so it is best used in baked goods. Before using frozen chocolate, thaw completely in the refrigerator without removing it from the bag. This will prevent condensation, which will damage the chocolate.
Chocolate easily absorbs odors, so make sure to store it away from any items that might impart strong aromas.
There a number of ways dark chocolate can be prepared, depending on how it is being used.
Melting: Finely chop dark chocolate, place it in a bowl over a pan of warm water and stir until melted. Be careful not to get any water in the bowl, as this will cause the chocolate to seize and become solid. To melt chocolate in the microwave, place chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat at 50 percent power. Stir the chocolate several times when melting in the microwave to prevent burning.
Once melted, keep chocolate in a bowl over a pan of warm water to prevent it from solidifying.
Chocolate Curls: Chocolate curls are an elegant way to add chocolate to desserts. To make chocolate curls, use a vegetable peeler to slice curls from a block of chocolate. Alternatively, melt chopped chocolate, pour it onto a flat surface and spread to a thin, even thickness. Let cool. Scrape chocolate off with a very sharp butcher's knife, or a wide metal spatula.
While it's not often thought of as a health food, research continues to show that dark chocolate contains ingredients beneficial to heart health. Packed with flavonoids, the same health boosting compounds found in grapes, berries and tea, dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. This month we're all about heart health, which is why we're praising the benefits of dark chocolate!
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