A rich, healthy alternative for your advent calendar

As I have reported many times, chocolate is highly nutritious for many different reasons. But it’s important to remember, not all chocolate is created equal. When it comes to health benefits, the darker the chocolate, the better.

So — clearly — you’ll want to skip the advent calendars filled with milk chocolate you start to see at this time of year. Instead, opt for a reusable advent calendar — and fill it with a different kind of chocolate treat, which I’ll tell you about in a moment. But first, let’s take a quick look back at how chocolate became such a nutritional superstar.

Chocolate has a long history

Originally, the ancient Maya and Aztecs in modern-day Mexico made a beverage out of cacao. But it was not quite like our version of hot chocolate or “cocoa.” It was a bitter beverage, which they also used in sauces and stews, such as today’s recipe for Mexican chicken or turkey mole poblano.

When the Spanish “discovered” cacao in Mexico, they added cane sugar from the Old World. But now that trend is reversing, as chocolate manufacturers are reducing the sugar and other additives and reverting back to the original dark chocolate.

Although dark chocolate is gaining popularity as a confection, it has actually been around for a long time. When I was a child, you could find semi-sweet, or bitter sweet, baking chocolate in every kitchen. You added the sugar separately to baked goods. (I still took more than a few good bites from my mother’s bitter baking chocolate when nothing else was available.)

You can assess the darkness of chocolate today simply by looking at the percentage of cacao content. You can consider anything with higher than a 70 percent level to be dark chocolate. And true dark chocolate has powerful antioxidant activity, more so than hyped antioxidant berries like acai. It also benefits the brain and heart.

Beyond cacao content, look for dark chocolate made with as few other ingredients as possible. The best always has cocoa, cacao, or chocolate liquor listed as the first ingredient. Forms listed may include cocoa butter, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder.  All are authentic additions to dark chocolate.

Manufacturers sometimes add unnecessary ingredients to improve appearance, flavor or shelf life.

Sugar is far and away the No. 1 added ingredient. But a little bit goes a long way. Never choose “chocolate” that lists sugar as the first ingredient. Look for products that show sugar last. Of course, the higher the cacao percent, the lower the sugar content will be in any case.

Manufacturers also add lecithin as an emulsifier to help blend flavors and keep the cocoa and cocoa butter from separating in the bar. But it commonly comes from soybeans, where it may be listed as soy lecithin. And remember, virtually all soybeans grown in the U.S. today are genetically modified.

Manufacturers also sometimes add milk to chocolate. This process technically makes it milk chocolate, not dark chocolate. The only exception might be to use milk fat (butter) that has had its moisture and non-fat milk solids removed.

Also avoid all chocolate that contains trans fat. (Or any food that contains it.) The FDA recently banned trans fats, but it will take years for the ban to go into full effect.

You should also avoid alkalinized or “Dutched” chocolate. Manufacturers use this chemical process to improve the color and flavor, but it also reduces antioxidant content. Check the ingredients for “cocoa processed with alkali.” Unfortunately, some of the more “prestigious” brands use alkalinized cocoa.

Beneficial additions that get a thumbs up

On the other hand, manufacturers sometimes add a variety of beneficial, natural extracts, spices and oils for flavor. For example, red chili peppers (as the ancient Aztecs added to cacao dishes) offer many added benefits.

Vanilla is another commonly added flavoring. Of course, the label may state “all-natural,” regardless of whether the added flavoring came from nature. Remember, the word “natural” means essentially nothing in food labeling. I suggest buying “organic” chocolate so you know all ingredients are truly natural in the proper sense of the word.

Healthy options for the holidays

Instead of milk chocolate in your advent calendars, I recommend trying cacao nibs. You can also add them to baked goods for the holidays. These pure, lightly crushed 100 percent cacao beans taste slightly bittersweet with a crunchy texture of roasted nuts. Two ounces will set you back about $6, but they go a long way.

I happily found some at Salem Spice in Salem, Mass., which is appropriate since the shop is located on the old docks and wharf that date back to when Salem was the spice capital of the world.