Most people love chocolate, but not the twinge of guilt that often accompanies indulging in it. For people with diabetes like me, that chocolate-induced guilt can come in a particularly high dose since we’re made to believe that anything sweet is completely incompatible with blood sugar control. But a closer look at chocolate’s health effects is good news for everyone – even people with diabetes.
Over the past 30-plus years, researchers have been investigating the potential benefits of chocolate, and current scientific evidence melts away some of the misconceptions. In fact, cocoa and dark chocolate, which originate from plants containing phytonutrients, are considered functional foods, or foods that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. In the case of chocolate, that bonus is attributable to phytonutrient compounds called flavonoids, which may help maintain cardiovascular health, improve insulin sensitivity and boost cognition. As a functional food, chocolate joins the ranks of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
And, there’s more good news: Cocoa and dark chocolate pack an impressive array of nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese, vitamins A, C and E, and the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid.
But before raiding the candy cabinet, keep in mind that not all chocolate is created equal when it comes to health benefits. Flavonoid amounts in a serving of cocoa or chocolate can range from as low as 5 milligrams to as high as 150 milligrams. How the cocoa bean is processed determines much of the flavonoid content in finished chocolate. Many cocoa powders on the market, for instance, are heavily alkalized, meaning they’ve undergone a processing method which can destroy the flavonoid while also reducing the acidity of the cocoa.
If you’re in the market for cocoa powder, then, choose a lighter color because it contains more antioxidant potential than the darker cocoa. Conversely, if you want a taste of hard chocolate, opt for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa, which is rich in antioxidants. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, has fewer nutrients, double the sugar and only one-quarter of the fiber of dark varieties.
Of course, just because some forms of chocolate have potential health benefits doesn’t mean it’s healthy to devour it with reckless abandon. Compared to other flavonoid-containing foods, chocolate candies are higher in calories. But then again, other flavonoid-containing foods aren’t chocolate.
So, how much should you eat? Research suggests 1 to 2 tablespoons of natural cocoa or 20 grams (about a 3/4-ounce piece) of dark chocolate per day is enough to result in cardiovascular health benefits. One tablespoon of natural cocoa contains only 10 calories and even a little bit of fiber (2 grams). Three pieces of 70-percent cocoa dark chocolate contains 75 calories and is equivalent to 1 tablespoon of cocoa. Milk chocolate adds calories and fat, and does not offer significant amounts of antioxidant flavonoids.
Chocolate can be part of a healthy diet for people with diabetes, but again, moderation is key. Combining reasonable amounts of chocolate with traditional diabetes-friendly foods is a great way to include the sweet stuff in your diet. Dip bananas or strawberries into melted dark chocolate, toss semi-sweet chocolate pieces into trail mix or oatmeal, or add cocoa to a chili recipe. Just remember to account for the total carbohydrate content of the food.
Need more inspiration? Try one of my favorite chocolate dessert recipes – molten chocolate lava cakes –from fellow dietitian Marlene Koch, who specializes in reducing the fat, calories and carbohydrate in foods you love.
Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes
3 ounces dark chocolate (2 1.45-ounce Hershey’s Special Dark bars or six squares from a 6.8-ounce bar)
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons low-fat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature, separated, divided
2 tablespoons cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon powdered sugar, optional, for dusting
Heat the oven to 400 F. Set oven rack to lower third of oven. Lightly spray four 6-ounce ramekins with cooking spray. Set aside.
Reserve either eight squares of chocolate from the small bars, or two from the large one. Place remaining chocolate in a medium, microwave-safe bowl with the butter and microwave on high for 60 seconds, or until chocolate is mostly melted. Remove and stir until smooth. Whisk in milk, vanilla and egg yolks until smooth. Sift in cocoa powder and flour, and whisk to combine.
In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until foamy. Gradually add 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat to soft peaks. Gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten, and then fold in remaining whites, taking care to not deflate the egg whites.
Divide the batter among the ramekins. If using the small chocolate bars, press two squares into the center of each cake. For the larger bar, cut one square in half and press into each cake. Bake for eight to nine minutes, or until tops are just firm to the touch and the cakes still jiggle slightly in center. Let cool for two minutes and serve immediately with a dusting of powdered sugar, if desired.
Nutrition Information per serving (1 lava cake): 210 calories; 21 g carbohydrate (15 g sugar); 12 g total fat (7 g saturated); 7 g protein; 2 g fiber; 150 cholesterol; 85 mg sodium.
Food exchanges: 1 1/2 carbohydrate; 1 lean meat; 1 1/2 fat; 1 1/2 carbohydrate choices.
(Recipe from “Eat What You Love Everyday: 200 All-New Recipes Low in Sugar, Fat, and Calories,” by Marlene Koch.)
Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report