Research has shown that the right kind of chocolate can be good for you-the right kind being dark chocolate and cocoa powder. When it comes to solid chocolate, unsweetened, bittersweet, and semisweet are the terms most often seen in the marketplace, with many manufacturers specifying the percentage of cocoa within their products. The optimal figure is 70 percent or higher, guaranteeing a useful concentration of antioxidant flavonoids. Natural cocoa powder is the highest, usually close to 100 percent.
It is largely those flavonoids that are the source of chocolate's reported health benefits. Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Harvard University School of Public Health, among others, point to reduced risk of heart attack and improved cardiovascular function from the flavanols found in the cacao bean. And observed effects upon serotonin levels in the brain following consumption may explain chocolate's purported mood-boosting abilities.
But chocolate's renewed popularity brings its own set of problems. Enormous demand leads to increased pressure on natural resources in areas where it's produced and impacts the workforce in multiple ways, including unfair prices to farmers, environmental degradation, and child labor bordering on slavery.
The problem is complex, and solutions equally convoluted and hotly debated. One of the primary movements to rectify the process is Fair Trade. As described by a consortium of the top certification organizations, Fair Trade is "a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade." In theory, it improves quality of life and upgrades the community, but the structure allows for inefficiency and corruption, and does not necessarily benefit the actual farmers involved. Thus there is considerable controversy over the efficacy of this designation.
If you're looking to do good socially with your chocolate purchase, the "Direct Trade" designation-including the "bean to bar" concept and "single origin" chocolate-may be the way to go. This indicates that the maker has obtained beans directly from the grower, thereby eliminating any number of possible middlemen and ensuring both greater quality control and a greater share of profit to the farmer.
In any event, you will want to shun those mass-market confections shouting at you from display racks at the front of your local supermarket, and find your way to the artisanal treats discreetly clustered elsewhere, with their sweet but subtle siren songs promising organic ingredients, Fair or Direct Trade sourcing, and high percentages of cocoa within. It'll do your body, your heart, and your head a world of good.
NATURAL VS. DUTCH COCOA
Unsure what to buy and why? Go with natural cocoa. Dutch is processed with alkali to neutralize chocolate's natural acidity, and this destroys most of the flavonoids that are essential to the healthy aspect of the chocolate.