Class reveals sweet secrets of chocolate

Chocolate, if chosen wisely, can be a savory, guilt-free experience.

Ruth Anglin, left, and Alberta Akers enjoy the first step in chocolate-tasting — smelling the chocolate.

Ruth Anglin, left, and Alberta Akers enjoy the first step in chocolate-tasting — smelling the chocolate. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — Chocolate is destined to tempt palates forever, believes Emily Castillo. Her point is perhaps most fervently made on a Valentine-infused weekend that officially began Friday and lingers through Presidents Day.

Diabetes doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, either, she conceded.

Studies show, however, the two are not incompatible — chocolate and good health can be “friends with benefits.”

A nurse practitioner at Walla Walla Clinic, Castillo joined with others on Thursday to teach patients of the clinic’s diabetes center that not every Valentine treat has to be taken off the plate. For folks who struggle to control blood-sugar levels, the right chocolate smacks of good news.

Dark chocolate — defined as 70-99 percent of the candy’s weight comes from ingredients in the cocoa bean — is different from milk chocolate. Dark chocolate lacks the milk solids of lighter chocolate and its low sugar content doesn’t spike blood sugar the way other sweets do.

Ongoing research suggests the candy, which contains healthy saturated fats and very little polyunsaturated fat, can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The antioxidants ward off heart disease and prevent cancer.

Chocolate also hampers depression with natural opiates that raise the serotonin levels in the brain, Castillo noted.

And there’s a bonus: the darker the chocolate, the more its natural fiber remains intact. Fiber cancels carbohydrates gram for gram, and too many carbohydrates are a diabetic’s enemy, she said.

Eaten in moderation and planned into a day’s menu, chocolate can satisfy many needs, she and experts say.

That’s all information diabetics can take to the bank, said Marilyn Hines, the clinic’s diabetes educator.

“We keep hearing from patients that friends and family try and dictate what they eat,” she said. “So this message is for them, too. We’re trying to take the ‘no’ away ... anytime you tell someone that, they are going to eat it.”

To get dark chocolate into the hearts of their patients, Castillo, Hines and nutritionist Adina Pearson borrowed heavily from a wine-tasting format.

There are lots of similarities between wine and chocolate, Pearson noted. “You get a lot of flavors with a little bit.”

To demonstrate, she passed out the first sample, a dark chocolate infused with sea salt and caramel. Like a sommelier, Pearson led the group of a dozen tasters through proper appraisal techniques.

“Is it shiny? Even-textured?” she asked. “Higher-quality chocolate is silky and shiny, with no white bloom.”

She continued: “Break it. It should snap. Now smell it. Is it fruity? Does it smell like woods or grass?”

As people finally got the candy onto their tongues, Pearson instructed them to note the finish — how long does the flavor stay on the tongue? Is the essence smoky, earthy, robust or mild?

Pearson built her tasting collection at Walmart, she said. “It’s all fairly inexpensive and accessible.”

Six different chocolates had been evaluated. From pepperminty to the bite of chili pepper in the chocolates, the tasters defined what worked for them and what didn’t.

“This isn’t worth my carbs,” noted one woman sampling the spice-laced candy.

Alberta Akers has been a chocolate lover forever, she said. Now 69, the Milton-Freewater resident has lived with diabetes for 30 years. When she heard the clinic was “shaking things up” with a chocolate tasting, “I paid my dollar and signed up right away,” she said with a laugh.

“I eat chocolate about four times a week. That would be OK if it was the right kinds of chocolate, so I’m here to learn about that,” Akers said.

People consume the treat for the pleasure it brings; no one — not even diabetics — should have to give that up, Pearson said.

“But be mindful. Be attentive,” she said. “Savor it.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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