Every winter, around February 14, the food and health pages run amusing pieces on why women crave chocolate, or how it came be associated with love and romance—and might even get you some. I used to find these reruns tedious, especially when they used the term ‘chocoholic,’ but I have new respect for chocolate, which I consider one of the great food-drugs, along with wine and cayenne peppers. Now I skip the sexy quotes and scan the articles for hard facts on the dark, complex bean of the cacao tree, a native of lush jungles within 20 degrees of the equator, from Hawaii to Venezuela to Nigeria.
Everyone has his poison (or ought to) and I’d probably eat chocolate no matter what, but for chocolate lovers seeking nutritional validation, some good news: the saturated and monounsaturated fats in cocoa butter are good for cholesterol; cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants and contains mild antidepressants.
Cocoa contains calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium, and more iron than any vegetable. It is very rich in polyphenols, particularly a group called flavonoids, which account for the pigment in foods like red wine, grape juice, and tea. These antioxidants promote vascular health, prevent LDL oxidation, lower blood pressure, reduce blood clots, and fight cancer. A 40-gram bar of milk chocolate contains as many antioxidants as a five-ounce (150 ml) glass of red wine. Polyphenols are found in cocoa solids, not cocoa butter. Thus pure cocoa powder has the most antioxidants by weight, then dark chocolate, and finally milk chocolate. White chocolate—made of cocoa butter without any cocoa powder—has none at all.
The polyphenols in chocolate may help beat obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure-all risk factors for heart disease. In 2005, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that eating 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of dark chocolate daily decreased blood pressure and significantly improved sugar metabolism by increasing sensitivity to insulin. Insulin sensitivity is desirable; recall that in diabetes, the cells are deaf to insulin. White chocolate did not have the same effect.
The fats in chocolate—mostly monounsaturated and saturated—are also healthy. The better bars have extra cocoa butter, which is roughly equal parts stearic, palmitic, and oleic acid (the fat in olive oil). Extra stearic acid is converted to oleic acid, so the net effect of these fats is good for cholesterol, if you worry about that. I am confident however, from studies of traditional diets, that natural saturated fats such as palmitic and stearic acid are good for you. They raise HDL, among other things. With HDL—and I quote the National Cholesterol Education Program—’the higher the better.’
A 2004 study in Free Radical Biology Medicine found that chocolate increased HDL and reduced oxidation of cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol causes atherosclerosis. Chocolate keeps well because saturated fats are stable, and any oxidation from heat or light is inhibited by cocoa’s abundant polyphenols.
How much chocolate is good for you? The authors of A Chocolate a Day Keeps the Doctor Away, who are unabashed enthusiasts, recommend no more than 2 ounces (55 grams) of chocolate each day, preferably dark chocolate, which has less sugar and more antioxidants. It also has more flavor than milk chocolate, which is why connoisseurs the world over prefer it. Once you’re used to the bold, complex flavors of chocolate unmasked by sugar, the average milk chocolate will seem cloying. Not that there’s anything wrong with milk, which goes nicely with chocolate. After all, ganache is nothing more than blended cream and chocolate. Look for a milk chocolate with more cocoa than sugar, such as Scharffen Berger, which is 41 percent cocoa, about twice the amount in a typical bar.
Sugar makes me plump and grumpy. I weaned myself from dark chocolate (60 percent cocoa), to darker (75 percent) and sometimes very dark (85 percent). Occasionally, I will make a cup of cocoa with unsweetened chocolate and very fresh raw cream, which is just sweet enough. Buy the best unsweetened and dark chocolate you can afford; there is no concealing shoddy chocolate once the sugar is gone. Cheap chocolate can be bitter or metallic.
When you make chocolate mousse (or any dessert), use half the sugar called for. You will taste the chocolate (or raspberries or peaches) first, instead of the sugar. When sweetness is not the dominant sensation, your appreciation for a particular flavor will grow; chocolate may seem fruity, smoky, or herbal, for example.
Other flavors will change subtly, too. Next to dark chocolate, savory foods such as almonds, coconut, and cream are almost sweet. If you’re used to sugary desserts, you may find ‘half-the-sugar’ desserts not quite to your taste at first. But I swear by this rule of thumb. I follow it every time I read a new recipe for ice cream or pumpkin pie or anything else. As my mother likes to say, ‘If it’s sweet on the first bite, it will be too sweet by the last.’
What are we eating these days? Yesterday I grated yellow (not orange) carrots and sautéed them with sesame oil and local garlic. The garlic was bitter. That’s February for you. I broke my own rule, which is not to eat garlic between Christmas and Easter. Happily we’re nearing the end of root vegetables; soon we’ll have outdoor lettuce and good garlic again. Meanwhile the apples from storage are so-so, so we’re eating citrus from organic farms in Texas and California.
On Valentine’s Day we’re having a party and keeping it simple. Red, white, and pink cyclamen from Greenmarket; cheese and salami from Murray’s; plenty of wine; chocolates from Vere. Never too sweet, Vere chocolates are for grown-ups who like dark chocolate, but they even won over my 7 and 8 year-old niece and cousin. The coconut flake and chocolate clusters are as elegant and simple as a dessert can be; the coconut ‘brownies’ are little logs of dense chocolate; they do cool things with pink peppercorns and pepitas; the truffles are wonderful. Happy Valentine’s Day.