That box of chocolates on the holiday dessert table can actually provide some health benefits—that’s certainly a sweet bonus. Since chocolate comes from cacao beans (or cocoa beans), which are the seed of the fruit of the cacao (Ka-Kow) tree, it’s full of natural plant nutrients and packed with antioxidants, just as green tea and blueberries are.
To get the biggest health benefits, choose dark chocolate (65% or higher cocoa content), which has far more antioxidants than milk or white chocolate. (And enjoy in moderation, of course.) Chocolate is also as fascinating as it is delicious.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Maya discovered the cacao tree in the rainforest and made a spicy beverage from the ground seeds. Spanish explorers brought the seeds back home in 1521 and added sugar to their beverage.
Dark chocolate is high in manganese, copper, iron, and magnesium, and a good source of fiber and phosphorous. Its antioxidants may help reduce LDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, and reduce blood clotting.
Like wine, chocolate reflects the distinct flavors of its region. Beans from Trinidad could have a cinnamon spiciness while those from Ecuador have a floral quality or beans from Jamaica even hint of pineapple.
Reading the percentages: “% cacao” on chocolate packages refers to the percentage of cacao bean solids in the bar. The higher the % cacao, the less sweet the bar and the stronger the chocolate taste.
White chocolate technically isn’t chocolate at all, because it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids, only cocoa butter mixed with sugar, milk solids, and flavorings.
Store chocolate in a cool, dry place. Wrap it tightly in a couple layers of plastic wrap and store in a dark cupboard away from strong-smelling foods, since it can absorb strong aromas. (Stored improperly, chocolate will develop a white film called bloom, which happens if it gets too warm. It won’t have the melt-in your-mouth feel, but will be perfectly safe to eat and fine to bake with.)