Got a Health Complaint? There May Be a Chocolate for That

"Functional chocolates" claim to boost the immune system, improve cognitive skills and even enhance a sagging libido.

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Courtesy Tripple Red Corp. Antidote Chocolate

Antidote's functional chocolate: 77% raw and roasted organic cacao with almond and fennel

Most chocolate lovers are well aware that the dark stuff is naturally packed with antioxidants, the health-boosting compounds that are thought to protect against heart disease, cancer and stroke.

But over the past several years, chocolatiers have been cooking up more potent recipes, adding to chocolate a variety of superfoods, supplements and spices that purport to perform all manner of health-related functions. According to its makers, such “functional chocolate,” as it’s known, can increase stamina, sharpen cognitive skills, boost the immune system or — for you last-minute Valentine’s Day gift shoppers — even enhance sagging libidos.

“People want ways to improve their health, and not just through moderation,” says Vanessa Barg, a holistic health practitioner and founder and owner of New York City-based Gnosis Chocolate, one of country’s biggest functional chocolate brands.

Indeed, in an era of rising diabetes and obesity rates, American consumers know they must do right by their health — that means cutting back on sweets like chocolate — but they’re not willing to forsake their indulgences altogether. Functional chocolate offers the best of both worlds. Sinful? Salubrious? Why not have both?

The functional food industry is a lucrative one — including bottled water, margarine, yogurt, breakfast cereal and many other products marketed as having health or wellness benefits — bringing in an estimated $20 to $30 billion a year, according to the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers. The chocolate segment represents just a drop in the bucket — with annual sales of some $600 million, according to market research firm Euromonitor — but it’s growing. Barg says the market is expanding by roughly 10% each year. Gnosis virtually had the arena to itself when it first debuted in 2007, but today more than a dozen firms are producing chocolate bars, truffles, powders and spreads with clearly stated health benefits.

Many functional chocolatiers use only raw, organic chocolate, with ultra-high cacao contents and minimal added sweeteners. For Gnosis’ bars, Barg boosts the beneficial effects of the antioxidants and phytochemicals in cacao beans by infusing extracts of other health-promoting foods such as goji berries (also high in antioxidants), ginseng (which can help control blood sugar and increase energy) and ginkgo biloba (which is often touted as a memory aid). New York-based Antidote Chocolate has bars — which come in a variety of sweetness levels and are all named after Greek goddesses — with fennel (helps digestion), cayenne pepper (regulates blood pressure) or juniper berries (reduces water retention).

Xocolatti, based in New York’s SoHo district, adds ingredients ranging from cholesterol-combating olive oil and fever-reducing basil to cardamom (an antiseptic) and paprika (an anti-inflammatory) to its chocolate clusters. San Francisco-based Poco Dolce‘s Asian-inspired Five Spice bar has cloves and star anise to aid digestion and reduce inflammation, while Portland’s Cocanu infuses its Holy Wood bars with aromatic palo santo wood from Ecuador, beloved by Amazonian shamans for its cleansing properties. Also from Ecuador are the Muskwuy Knowledge Bars by Kallari Chocolate — the world’s only farmer-owned cocoa collective — which include three types of ginger and pure Andean salts noted for their immune-boosting abilities.

“These [foods] are not medicines, but things we are already consuming,” says Ashley Koff, a Beverly Hills-based registered dietitian and author of Mom Energy: A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged, a guide to enhancing energy through healthy lifestyle choices. Chocolate, Koff adds, “is in itself an extremely functional food; adding additional ingredients either enhances chocolate’s benefits or creates new ones.”

Indeed, the notion of chocolate as a functional food is hardly new or revolutionary. For most of its history, chocolate was actually served as a hearty, nutrient-packed food. Seventeenth-century American colonists prepared chocolate as a spicy, nutritious drink, for instance. “Chocolate is more ‘American’ than apple pie, but when Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin spoke of chocolate, they never referred to it as a candy,” says Rodney Snyder, chocolate history research director at Mars Chocolate North America, whose six-year-old brand American Heritage Chocolate is made solely from ingredients available in 1750. “They added cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and anise to reduce chocolate’s bitterness and make it more interesting. Only later on did they add sugar when it became available from the Caribbean.”

Luxury French chocolatier Jacques Torres, who recently introduced the Wicked line of chocolates, with anti-inflammatory ancho and chipotle peppers, says that modern-day chocolate products are merely “adapting traditional notions of chocolate to the tastes we expect today.”

Of course the “functionality” of any chocolate has to be weighed against its less healthful properties, namely that it’s loaded with fat, calories and sugar, which — even when sourced all naturally from cane, agave or coconuts — can quickly add up and offset any health benefits. “There really is no such thing as ‘healthy’ sugar,” notes Antidote founder Red R. Thalhammer, who uses dates to sweeten his company’s 100% raw, organic cocoa Xochipilli bars to increase smoothness and flavor.

Regardless of any other health-giving nutrients in the bar, nutritionists say chocolate must be dark to be healthful. Any chocolate containing less than 70% cacao will offer few benefits and little functionality.

But whether it’s touted as functional or simply fun, the real purpose of chocolate is to make people feel good. To that end, for Valentine’s Day, Gnosis is rolling out a new line of “passion” truffles with protein-packed maca root and “aphrodisia smooches,” which are spiked with the libido-enhancing — and appropriately named — horny goat weed. They’ll make you feel good, Barg says, but they taste good too. “Hippocrates may have been the first to say, Let food be your medicine and let your medicine be food,” Barg notes. “Over 2,500 years later, it seems that more and more of us are finally listening to him.”