Going against the grain of an industry campaign to allow vegetable oil to be substituted for cocoa butter – and still be called chocolate – Mars Inc. has decided to not mess with its recipes.
About a dozen food industry groups are pushing to change long standing federal standards to allow cocoa butter to be replaced with up to five percent of another vegetable fat, which could save chocolate manufacturers millions of dollars.
Currently, manufacturers are allowed to substitute cocoa butter in their products, but they are not allowed to call it chocolate. Many consumers, and some within the chocolate industry, have protested against the proposed change to degrade the quality of “genuine chocolate.”
The European Union has already used a five percent vegetable oil ceiling in their chocolate since 2003.
The maker of M&M’s, Dove chocolate, and Snickers will continue to use 100 percent cocoa butter in its U.S. chocolate products.
No doubt about it, chocolate is big business, and chocolate lovers are passionate about their chocolate. Hopefully this industry push to degrade an already questionable food product will not go through, because although SOME chocolate can be good for you, in modest amounts, processed milk chocolate is not – whether it’s made with 100 percent cocoa butter or vegetable oil substitutes.
The Danger of Processed Chocolate
A 2005 study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives found that processed chocolate could be contaminated with extremely high quantities of lead.
However, this was not a new discovery; it had been assumed that cocoa plants were tainted by leaded gasoline. However, a team of researchers found that lead levels in processed chocolate were 60 times higher than could be accounted for by the leaded gasoline theory. Unfortunately, they were unable to pin down whether the additional contamination comes from the shipping, or the manufacturing process itself.
This is a concern, as elevated blood lead levels in children can produce learning disabilities, including damage to a child's ability to think, plan, organize, and memorize.
With this in mind, I hope you’re loading up on natural whole food treats rather than miniature chocolate bars for the annual Death by Sugar festivities – oops, I mean Halloween -- which is just around the corner.
The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Chocolate
Dark, unprocessed chocolate, on the other hand, has been exonerated in several studies as actually having some positive impact on your health.
But what makes dark chocolate so much better than milk chocolate?
Dark chocolate contains flavonols, which have antioxidant properties that can help protect your body from damaging oxidative stress, and there’s evidence that consumption of dark chocolate can improve your:
- Glucose metabolism (diabetic control)
- Blood pressure
Researchers may have pinpointed the reason for chocolate's cardiovascular benefits by looking at the health of the Kuna Indians of Panama, who consume three to four cups of flavanol-rich cocoa daily.
One of these flavonols -- epicatechin -- was responsible for the vascular benefits the Kuna Indians experienced when they drank certain cocoas. These benefits included:
- Higher levels of nitric oxide in their blood, demonstrating the flavonols were absorbed into, and present in, their bloodstream
- Patients with high levels of epicatechin experienced improved circulation
- Consuming pure epicatechin had almost the same effect as eating flavanol-rich cocoa
The concentration of flavonols in any chocolate depends on:
- The flavanol content of the cocoa plant it is derived from
- The procedures used to transform the cocoa into chocolate
Dark chocolate contains a relatively high concentration of flavonols, and researchers believe that the regulation of nitric oxide production by the flavonols found in dark chocolate could explain its positive effects on insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.
Adding milk to the process, however (to create the milk chocolate bars you find in most grocery stores), cancels out the beneficial antioxidant effects of chocolate.
In fact, researchers suggest proteins in the milk bind with antioxidants, making them less easily absorbed by your body. That’s not surprising, considering how pasteurized milk affects you.
Additionally, the standard manufacturing process of chocolate destroys about one-quarter to one-half of its flavonoid content although some companies now use processing methods with reduced heat and alkalization, which can preserve as much as 70 percent to 95 percent of the chocolate flavonoid.
Tips for Chocolate Lovers
I think it's important to keep in mind that you can derive a majority of these antioxidant benefits by consuming fruits like blueberries, apples and grapes, and most vegetables, including broccoli, greens, and onions. This is obviously the method I would recommend over eating chocolate.
But, if you really love chocolate, these common sense tips can help you indulge safely:
- Restrict your intake to dark, organic chocolate, which contains the most flavonols, and avoids dangerous processing procedures. The best would be raw cacao, which is relatively bitter because it doesn’t have sugar in it.
- Consume chocolate in moderation
- Hold off on chocolate if you are struggling with serious disease -- remember that all chocolate contains lots of sugar, which depresses your immune system
Keep in mind that if you’re constantly craving sweets, you’re most likely not eating the correct balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for your nutritional type. And, once you get most of the sugar out of your diet, your desire for commercially made sweets, including chocolate, will change dramatically.
If you tend to crave chocolate when you are upset, bored, or lonely, then you could benefit from resolving these underlying emotional issues (and we all have them) that are driving you to seek comfort from chocolate.