For years, admits Deborah Gregory-Voss, chocolate was considered a “bad” food — too fattening with no redeeming qualities beyond a sugar quick-fix. But that’s changed over the past decade, and Gregory-Voss, who owns Andersonville’s Let Them Eat Chocolate, considers the shop a natural outgrowth of her passion for healthy eating.
She’s not alone.
This year’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a cornerstone of the federal nutrition policy published every five years by the Department of Health and Human Services, devotes one section to the health benefits of chocolate.
The focus is on polyphenols, a kind of antioxidant found in fruits and veggies. A subclass of these are called flavonoids, which are found in dark chocolate, cocoa, as well as red wine and green tea. According to the 2010 dietary guidelines, studies have suggested that cocoa and chocolate “have beneficial effects on blood pressure, inflammatory markers, anti-platelet function, serum HDL, and LDL oxidation.”
In other words, antioxidant-rich chocolate may help lower blood pressure, improve good cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“I always feel really good after I eat chocolate,” says Gregory-Voss, who enjoys a few pieces a day. The former professional baker, who has spent much of her life focused on organic foods and cooking (she co-owned a non-profit vegetarian restaurant at age 19) features additive-free, all-natural Belgian chocolates at her shop, as well as seven flavors of gelato (one’s dairy-free), coffees and teas, and a small selection of baked goods and sandwiches.
What makes her chocolates unusual, however, is that she offers both vegan and non-vegan varieties. The vegan, which is all dark chocolates, uses no animal byproducts and contains beet sugar, to avoid that dreaded sugar spike, says Gregory-Voss.
The non-vegan selections feature dark and milk chocolates. Both vegan and non-vegan are popular with customers, though current favorites are peanut butter truffles and any chocolate with citrus flavoring.
If you’re eating chocolate for health benefits, you’ll need to be selective. The more that chocolate’s been processed with sugar, milk and other ingredients, the lower the flavonoid content — and the higher the fat.
Darker chocolate is usually healthier, explains Dr. Penny M. Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State, although even some dark chocolates, depending on how they’re processed, aren’t rich in polyphenolic compounds.
Look for dark chocolate that advertises 70 percent cocoa or more to get the most health benefits, says Jenny Maloney (formerly Jenny Schwartz) registered dietitian and certified personal trainer at Galter LifeCenter in Chicago. Milk chocolate can have small amounts of antioxidants, but also have more saturated fats and cholesterol.
“In processed chocolate, like a candy bar with chemicals, fats, dairy and sugar, those antioxidant benefits are taken away,” Maloney says. “Like so many other foods, the fewer ingredients in chocolate, the better the quality and the healthier it is for the person eating it.”
But this isn’t a license to eat as much chocolate as possible. “We tell people not to overdo it, just as with red wine,” says Maloney. “You can get antioxidants in fruits and veggies and you don’t want to overdo chocolate because of its sugar and fats.”
Her suggestion? “Eat your dark chocolate with a piece of fruit.”