In a poll by USA Today, the top three contenders for Americans’ favorite candy were:
- Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
While I personally am a die-hard Reese’s fan, I couldn’t help but realize what all three candies have in common: chocolate. That’s right, no Swedish Fish or Twizzlers or Starbursts could out-match the popularity of good, ole-fashioned chocolate candy. As Americans, it seems we are hard-wired to love the flavor. Which got me thinking: what is it about chocolate that is addicting? It begins as a plant, but it can quickly become a calorie-packed, sugar-laden treat. Let’s take a journey from cocoa bean to candy bar to see what really happens to our favorite plant.
Every chocolate product starts out as a small bean in a pod on a cacao tree.
These cacao beans are naturally cream-colored and don’t have much of a flavor, which is why they require fermentation. To ferment the beans, farmers cover them with banana leaves that cause enzymatic changes and produce the chocolate flavor we know and love. Then, the cacao beans are laid in the sun to dry. After this, a manufacturing plant sorts, cleans, and roasts the dried beans. The roasting step gives the beans their signature brown color and is a chance to manipulate the flavor profile. These roasted beans are winnowed, meaning the shell breaks away the leaves the cocoa nib behind. Now we’re getting close! The cocoa nibs are ground into a paste known as chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor can be used to become your favorite candy bar, or it can be further processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
Okay, so now we know the long journey a cacao bean makes before it’s tossed into our grocery store cart. But… what to do with that information? It changes the way we buy the sweet stuff. Take a look at milk chocolate versus dark chocolate:
- Milk: 10-15% cocoa solids + cocoa butter + milk + sugar
- Dark: 50-90% cocoa solids + cocoa butter + sugar
In other words, dark chocolate contains more actual chocolate. This means more health benefits from the cacao plant itself, less added sugar, and less potential for questionable additives to sneak in. The next time you’re in the mood for some chocolate, try to pick out a 70% or higher dark chocolate bar. Keep in mind the higher the percentage of cocoa, the more bitter the flavor and the more health benefits.
And speaking of health benefits, what exactly does cocoa do for us?
- Provides flavanols. These are chemicals that may help lower blood pressure and therefore protect the heart.
- Rich source of iron. Nonheme iron is the form of iron found in plants. Iron is important for healthy blood, energy levels, and hormone production.
- Rich source of magnesium. This nutrient is difficult to come by in dietary sources, but deficiency is not uncommon. Magnesium is important for sleep, stress reduction, and regular bowel movements.
- Rich source of zinc. Zinc supports a healthy immune system (hello, flu season!). It also contributes to DNA, grows cells, and helps you taste and smell.
Convinced yet to incorporate some dark chocolate into your diet? Remember to enjoy it in moderation and pick out a 70% cocoa or higher bar. Combine it with fruit for a snack, top it with a bit of your favorite nut butter, or just enjoy a square after dinner!