It’s February and Valentine’s Day will soon be here – what’s the most popular valentine gift? Nationwide, its chocolate! Can eating chocolate really be good for your health? I just love the smoothness and the flavor of chocolate, but should I eat it? Since February is also American Heart Month, it’s great to learn that chocolate can be a healthy and enjoyable treat for heart health.
Chocolate comes from the cacao (pronounced kuh-KOW) tree. The pods of this tree contain seeds similar to coffee beans that can be processed into chocolate. Cacao is extraordinarily rich in flavanols, a type of flavonoid phytochemical.
Flavanols are a type of flavonoid specifically found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavanol content varies according to the form of chocolate. The higher the percent cocoa in chocolate, the greater the flavanol content.
Flavanols are associated with a variety of health benefits including heart health. Studies suggest possible health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by:
- Reducing the risk of heart attacks
- Lowering the risk of blood clots
- Decreasing blood pressure
- Increasing insulin sensitivity
- Improving blood flow to the heart and brain
- Lowering cholesterol
- Prevention of cell damage
Not all chocolate is created equal. While the amount of the healthy antioxidant flavonoids varies from one type of chocolate to another, there’s one guideline to take to heart: the more nonfat cocoa solids in a chocolate product, the more antioxidants it likely contains. So which type of chocolate has the most flavonoids? The highest levels are in natural cocoa powder, not Dutch cocoa because it is alkalized cocoa. The type second highest in flavonoids is unsweetened baking chocolate. Dark chocolate and semisweet chocolate rank third, with milk chocolate and chocolate syrup at the bottom of the list. For a better flavonoid-to-calorie ratio, choose cocoa powder whenever possible for baking and making hot chocolate.
Keep in mind that flavanol levels in types of chocolate can vary based on:
- The cocoa beans selected.
- The processing of the beans and chocolate.
- Storage and handling conditions.
Include chocolate in your diet by choosing wisely. Before grabbing chocolate candy or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.
-Natural cocoa contains high levels of flavanols and, because it doesn’t contain cocoa butter, is an optimal low fat option in cooking and baking. When cocoa is alkalized or Dutched, it lowers the bitterness, darkens the color, and lowers the flavanol.
– Dark chocolate content varies from 30 to 80 percent cocoa. The higher the cocoa percentage, the greater the flavanol content. To maximize health benefits select dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content.
– Milk chocolate contains about 7 to 35 percent cocoa.
– White chocolate contains at least 20 percent cocoa butter, some milk solids and sugar, but none of the healthy cocoa flavanols.
Moderation is the key! The chocolate we enjoy is processed. In order to make it taste delectable and to balance the natural bitter flavor of cocoa, it contains added fat and sugar making it higher in calories. One thing most chocolate candy has in common is calories. An ounce of sweetened chocolate will cost us about 150 calories – that’s about six to seven chocolate kisses. Be careful of the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. Watch out for the extra ingredients that can add extra fat and calories! This could mean adding pounds along with the flavonoids.
There is currently no established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits it has to offer. You no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate occasionally. Enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., one ounce) a few times per week, and don’t forget to include other flavonoid-rich foods and beverages such as apples, cranberries, grapefruit, grapes, onions, peanuts, and tea.
People may benefit from including a variety of flavonoid-rich foods as part of a healthful diet – and dark chocolate, in moderate amounts, can be part of this plan. On Valentine’s Day, it’s okay to pamper your palate with this ancient delicacy by enjoying the sweetness of a little chocolate and do your heart good at the same time.
(Sources: Colorado State University, WebMD Inc.)
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