Valentine’s Day’s promise of dark chocolate offers us nutritionists a glimmer of hope: make the right choice and indulge only on the Big Day, and chocolate is a sensual, deliciously healthy treat. BUT…succumb to a month-long “free for all” that starts each morning at the barista (“Valentine’s drink”, anyone?) and ends each night on the couch with the clicker, downing sweets with your sweetheart and… well… you get the point.
Of course, I love chocolate because it’s one of the most powerful plant foods on the planet (you may want to skip this paragraph if you already know about the health benefits). High quality dark chocolate is teeming with bioactive compounds such as flavonoids, which research suggests help improve our arteries’ endothelial function, lower blood pressure, and increase blood flow to the brain. Dark chocolate is also high in antioxidants called proanthocyanins that mop up free radicals. And that rush of pleasure you feel when you indulge? Chocolate helps trigger the release of feel good neurotransmitter dopamine, boosting your mood instantly.
Everyone deserves to eat good food. In these extraordinarily turbulent times, talking about high quality chocolate may make you think I’m posturing more like a foodie than a food revolutionary. But my interest in pointing you to the best chocolate available isn’t because it’s more elite, but because all the health benefits I mentioned happen only with high quality dark chocolate (containing 70% cocoa or higher). Secondly, many of the companies I’ve listed below are having powerful, positive economic and environmental impacts on people and the planet-precisely the type of change to “the system” that people around the world are rising up and demanding. So please, resist the urge to dump a bag of cheap candy into your shopping cart these next few days, and purchase smaller amounts of higher quality confections if you can. Bargain priced, highly processed chocolate products typically have a litany of unsavory ingredients tagging along like barnacles, such as high fructose corn syrup, waxes, trans fats, binders, and palm oil (and I won’t even bore you with the research showing how much more you’ll eat just by having tons of it lying around). Steer clear, too, of those new versions of traditional candy bars that claim to be loaded with healthy flavonols – if they aren’t Organic or Fair Trade Certified, you’re missing out on all the sweet rewards that come with greener chocolate.
From Bean to Bar: Why it Matters
Below are 7 of my favorite picks so you can splurge in a way that pairs top notch chocolate with top notch industry practices. In my opinion, the best chocolates have a fully transparent “bean to bar” story, ensure sustainable farming practices that help replenish and nourish the planet, preserve biodiversity, and support fair wages and conditions for workers. If you got it on the cheap, someone (or some vital ecosystem that helps protect the Earth) paid the price somewhere. Given then we are set to gobble 58 million pounds of chocolate this Valentine’s Day, those things matter.
And while Organic and Fair Trade chocolate carries a higher price tag, the nutritionist in me says that in some ways, this is how chocolate should be priced: its higher price helps you to value it (when we value things we treat them with more respect and awareness), to savor it (you’ll be mindful when you eat it), and to see it as a true splurge (which means you’ll make it a special treat rather than eating fistfuls every day). A perfect lean and green strategy.
Eat Right For Your Type: What Kind of Chocolate Eater Are You?
1. For the Trend Setter: ALTER ECO Dark Quinoa Chocolate is a crispy chocolate like no other. With the fun contrasting crunch akin to a Nestle Crunch bar, but so, so much better: made with cacao and quinoa from Bolivia, this chocolate bar contains 61% cocoa and brings together ancient ingredients from the Andeans. Quinoa adds nutritious iron, protein, and fiber to your splurge.
2. For the Serious Do-Gooder: Original Beans. This one really impressed me. For every bar you buy, local community farmers plant a tree that will support the forest; not just rare cacao trees, but a mix of trees necessary for lively biodiversity. And get this: each bar even contains a lot tracking number, which designates the location of a new tree so that you can track your contribution online. Oh, and the chocolate is breathtakingly good.
3. For Those Who Like to Double Down: Double your health benefits with Green and Blacks Ginger or Sour Cherries Chocolate Bars. Sour Cherries have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, and help boost your body’s melatonin, a compound which helps ensure a good night sleep. Ginger contains powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compounds, and helps soothe the gastrointestinal tract.
4. For the Data-Driven: After trying over 35 chocolates for Consumer Reports 2012 taste tests, Theo Chocolate Confection Collection got the testers’ high-rating nod. Attribute it to heavenly things like “lemon ganache, fig, mint, and ginger enrobed in flavorful dark chocolate.”
5. For the Romantic: Try Theo’s limited edition Ginger Rose and Cherry Pink Peppercorn Valentine Bars. Wrapped in gorgeous pink packaging, their description alone is as steamy as an adult Valentine: “The Ginger Rose bar infuses our rich dark chocolate with essential rose oil that yields to the heat of candied ginger”.
6. For the Salty/ Sweet: Salazon. Ignore the “bacon and chocolate” trend, this is perfect for those who crave salty/sweet in one fell swoop. Spanish for ‘salted”, Salazon’s chocolate bars use 100% organic, Rainforest Alliance–certified beans in small batches in the USA, and hand-sprinkled with natural, solar-evaporated sea salt. Other fun contrasting ingredients include black pepper and crushed coffee. Plus, these guys got the idea on a backpacking trip here in Utah, which I love.
7. For the Purist: Kallari Chocolate Bar. This award-winning Ecuadoran chocolate is deliciously rich and smooth- and produced by a cooperative of indigenous Kichwa farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And it’s simple full circle: profits return to the cooperative to support sustainable development, health, and education programs.
8. For Those Who Don’t Like Chocolate: want to stay calorie free but still tread lightly on the planet? Try to buy organic flowers. According to Pesticide Action Network commercial flowers (often produced in other countries) are the most toxic and heavily sprayed agricultural crops on Earth. Alternately, look for Florverde Certified flowers- a rigorous certification which requires better treatment of workers and more sustainable farming practices.
Want to see even more companies that are offering chocolate with a clean conscience? Business Week has a great review here.
Got other favorites? I’d love to hear about them!
Written with assistance from Lindsey Toth, MS, RD