What You Need to Know About Chocolate

Filed under: Big Kids, Tweens, Teens, Nutrition: Health, Mealtime

Ah, Valentine's Day. Love is in the air, and chocolate is on the shelves. Many of us dream of chocolate and feel drawn to its taste, its texture and how it makes us feel. There is almost something other-worldly about chocolate, isn't there? And not surprising, since the tree that chocolate comes from -- the cacao tree (pronounced ka-kaw) -- was given the name theobroma, which literally means "food of the gods."

Yes, chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree. The seeds are found inside a fruit that is commonly referred to as cacao pods, which weigh about one pound when ripe. (But don't kid yourself -- chocolate can't be classified as a fruit, no matter how much we'd like it to be!) The pod contains anywhere from 20 to 60 seeds, which are often called the "beans." Each seed is rich in fat, with about 40 to 50 percent cocoa butter. The active property in cocoa butter is theobromine, which has effects that are similar to caffeine.

So what kind of chocolate is best for your family?
Not all chocolate is created equal, and some chocolate contains more active properties than others. Research has concluded that the more raw the chocolate is, the more it holds its nutritional antioxidant properties. So which kind is best for your family? Here's the breakdown.

Raw Chocolate
Raw chocolate is rich in flavonoids that reduce free radical damage and reduce platelet aggregation - or risk of platelets bulking up to form a blood clot. If you are shopping for the purest from for your entire family chocolate nibs would be your best bet - but know there is nothing added to them so they are not sweet like commercial chocolate, but sightly bitter with crunch.

Dark Chocolate
The second runner up for health is dark chocolate, with at least 70 percent (or more) cocoa content. Dark chocolate is rich in cocoa phenols, an antioxidant shown to lower blood pressure. A recent study, published in the Journal of Proteome Research, found eating one-and-a-half ounces of dark chocolate each day for two weeks can help to reduce the level of stress hormones in highly stressed individuals. And it's not just adults who are feeling stressed -- with their over-packed schedules and extra-curricular activities, kids are feeling much more stressed out these days, too. Consider serving dark chocolate as a palate cleanser at the end of your supper meal, or melt it and serve it with strawberries for a great family treat.

Milk Chocolate
Chocolate starts changing once milk, sugar or fat are added. The more that chocolate has been processed, the more nutritional value has been lost. Findings indicate that when milk is present in the chocolate (such as in milk chocolate or even dark chocolate eaten with milk), the milk interferes with the absorption of the antioxidants. In one study, subjects with mildly high blood pressure ate a 100g candy bar or dark chocolate every day for two weeks. In the group that ate the dark chocolate there was a significant drop in blood pressure by an average of 5 systolic points and 2 diastolic points. Milk chocolate may be creamy and delicious, but unfortunately it's just not the healthiest choice.

White chocolate
White chocolate is not classified as true chocolate, as it does not contain any cacao at all. Rather, it was developed for those that have an allergy to cacao. Its main ingredients are cocoa butter, sugar, milk and vanilla. It's important to note that it literally is more like candy with added fat than a form of chocolate, as it does not hold any antioxidant power. That said, it would be wise to skip over the white chocolate section in the grocery store.

Chocolate can be a winner for your family. Remember though, chocolate still contains calories, so it's best to think of it like a treat (a treat that just happens to have some great health rewards, too, thanks to cocoa). The best bet is to shop for chocolate that contains a minimum percent of 70 percent cocoa. The higher you go in cocoa content, the more bitter the flavour will be, so if you're trying to ease yourself into liking dark chocolate, start out by pairing using it as a dip for some fresh or dried fruit, for added sweetness. And if you're looking for a delicious, family-friendly Valentine's treat, give these choco-bites a try.

Karla Heintz, B.Sc., is a nutrition educator and author of Picky? Not Me, Mom! A Parents' Guide to Children's Nutrition. If you have a question you would like answered please leave it in the comment section below. Thanks!

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.