Health Benefits of Chocolate and Low-Carb Cooking with Chocoate

Cooking with Unsweetened Chocolate

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Since the first use by the ancient Central and South Americans thousands of years ago, chocolate has captured the human palate and heart. Now it has graduated from merely being one of the most cherished foods on the planet to one of the most studied. You have undoubtedly heard of the health benefits of chocolate by now, as well as the many chemicals that act in a pleasant way on the moods of its consumers.

Unfortunately, the joys of chocolate tend to come bundled with lots of sugar (or maltitol, which is almost as bad). It takes some ingenuity to make it yummy and yet low in carbohydrates. But it can be done!

A Quick Summary of the Health Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate is often spoken of as being good for the heart, in more ways than one. Not only does it have a chemical said to mimic being in love, but studies indicate that chocolate can improve blood vessel responsiveness (important for the prevention of heart disease), blood pressure, and cholesterol. Other studies have shown it has ​potential for improving glucose tolerance, which is important to those of us who are using low-carb diets to minimize blood glucose spikes.

Flavonoids, which are one group of phytonutrients, are thought to be at least partially responsible for the positive health potential of chocolate. These chemicals have an antioxidant effect that may also be helpful in cancer prevention.

It’s important to realize that these potential effects are usually tested on more chocolate than a person would want to eat. It's also probable that often the chocolate used in medical studies is from a purer blend of cacao than is usually found in stores. Still, chocolate can contribute to the "phytonutrient cocktail" that we all should be getting every day –- in other words, getting eating a wide variety of plant foods, including foods such as chocolate and tea, is almost certainly a positive thing for our health, with each different food making its contribution.

You may have also heard about chemicals in chocolate that affect mood. Again, the amounts of these chemicals are very small, and probably don’t have a big effect on most people. On the other hand, some people seem to be more susceptible to these chemicals than others. 

Chocolate Nutrition

One ounce of unsweetened chocolate has about 145 calories and 8 grams of carbohydrate, a little over half of which is fiber. Chocolate is also rich in many minerals -- for example, one ounce of unsweetened chocolate contains about a quarter of the iron and magnesium we need in a day, and about half of the copper and manganese. Most of the fat in chocolate is healthy fat –- either monounsaturated fat or stearic acid, a “good saturated fat” by any measure. Three tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, for about 36 calories, has the same amount of carbohydrate and fiber, but lower amounts of vitamins and minerals (and much less fat).

Sugar-Free Cooking with Chocolate

First, remember that chocolate originally was eaten unsweetened, either in a drink similar to coffee or in savory dishes such as Mexican mole sauces, or Cincinnati Chili.

It can add a subtle background flavor that no one can identify, but everyone likes!

In sweets, we run into some difficulties. Although artificial sweeteners do well adding sweetness to cocoa powder, it’s a little more difficult to work with pure chocolate -– and yet, we all want that wonderful mouthfeel and depth of flavor. You will notice that almost always sugar-free sweets have maltitol in them or other sugar alcohols. This is because sugar contributes properties to sweets other than just sweetness, and sugar alcohols can provide some of the same characteristics. Also, I find that artificial sweeteners don’t fully counteract the bitterness of chocolate as well as sugar alcohols.

The problem is that sugar alcohols are not all alike (see chart at bottom of page for comparison). Maltitol, in particular, has pretty much the same as sugar in terms of blood sugar impact. When purchasing sugar-free chocolates, it is important to understand sugar alcohols and choose accordingly.

In cooking, I like to use erythritol as it has the least impact on blood sugar. However, because erythritol has a “cooling” effect that can be distracting in large amounts, I like to combine it with artificial sweeteners, particularly liquid forms of sucralose (Splenda). Sweetzfree is my preference, as it is the most concentrated. Chocolate must also be handled with some care -– it must never be placed over direct heat on the stove, for example. One safe way of melting chocolate is by pouring boiling water over it, and then pouring the water off when the chocolate is fully melted.

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