Monday, February 14, 2011

Meatless Monday: Valentine’s Day Edition

In celebration of chocolate…

I had always hoped that chocolate would someday end up on the good for you list. And it finally did — not every kind, and not in large quantities. But dark chocolate, in moderation, is indeed (at least for now) being promoted as a food with benefits for both your heart and mind.

What better post on a day where hearts proliferate and chocolate is much exchanged, than one outlining the story of chocolate and spelling out what makes one kind better than another.

The True History of Chocolate (Second Edition)What we know as chocolate has its origins in the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America, where cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. Anthropologists Michael and Sophie Coe wrote a comprehensive volume, The True History of Chocolate, rich in details about a number of topics including chocolate’s significance in the Mayan and Aztec cultures, how chocolate became the rage after the explorers introduced it to Europe in a sweetened form, and the methods for chocolate’s mass production in modern times.

The Cleveland Clinic is world-renowned as a center for treatment of cardiac (heart) disease. In 2010 it published an article on its website titled “Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled.” In summary, the article states that chocolate is rich in flavonals, naturally-occurring compounds with a number of healthy qualities. Flavonals are rich in antioxidants, which help the body’s cells resist damage. Current research also shows that they lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and lower cholesterol. A paper presented at the April 2010 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology found that eating chocolate may lower your risk of having a stroke.  The health blog of Consumer Reports summarized a study where stressed-out subjects improved after eating a little bit of dark chocolate every day for two weeks. WOW!

But before you grab that milk-chocolate covered caramel bar, please read on. Not all chocolate is created equal. First off, the more the cocoa is processed in the making of a chocolate product, the more flavonals are lost. Until chocolate manufacturers perfect techniques that preserve these flavonals from start to finish, you are better off indulging in chocolate that is dark (rather than milk chocolate) and cocoa powder that has not been Dutch processed (treated to reduce its acidity). You should also watch out for extra ingredients that add fat or calories. The Cleveland Clinic advises enjoying a moderate amount of dark chocolate (one ounce) a few times a week, along with other foods rich in flavonoids. These choices include: apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries — in moderation — particularly when it comes to wine.

Have you ever wondered how a cacao bean is transformed into that neatly-packaged bar on the store shelf? The people at Equal Exchange tell the tale in The Chocolate Journey: From Bean to Bar. There are many steps and many people involved in the process. The Smithsonian Museum offers a brief summary and a short video which concludes with some delicious-looking recipes.

As with most products, some cocoa is grown and processed in a more ethical manner than others. Chocolate labeled as “certified organic” is made of cacao grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, typically cultivated on small plots under existing forest canopy, helping to preserve biodiversity. Chocolate sold through the Fair Trade Federation guarantees a “fair price” to producers and sets rigorous, transparent social and environmental production standards. 

Global Exchange has launched the Raise the Bar Hershey Campaign, pressing Hershey, one of the largest and oldest chocolate companies in the US, to join the movement and start sourcing Fair Trade certified cocoa. Watch the trailer for The Dark Side of Chocolate and read the Hershey CSR report online if you want to learn more about this issue. 

Valentine’s Day is here. What should you do if you want to give your honey some good for them and good for the world chocolate? It’s not too late. Some Fair Trade and Organic bars are available in retail stores. Green & Black’s Maya Gold is one. For more ideas, check out the chocolate bar guide at GoodGuide and then see what your local store carries. Those lucky enough to have a Ten Thousand Villages store nearby can find Fair Trade chocolate there. 

In the future, when you have a little more time, check out the online stores at Equal Exchange and Global Exchange.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember — moderation, and take time to savor the flavor! 

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

1 comment:

  1. If I remember correctly, your roots are in Sicily (where your last name means "wild pear tree"!) ? Then you can indulge your roots & introduce more chocolate into your diet by making meat sauce Sicilian style. The classic ragù bolognese always includes whole milk (or even cream). In Sicily, they add dark chocolate-- and sometimes cinnamon) --instead. Buon San Valentino ! And for those of you who are single Buon San Faustino! (a Valentine's Day for singles inaugurated in Italy a couple of years ago; it falls on the saint's feast day: February 15).