To celebrate and honor our national love holiday this month, Valentine’s Day, I thought it appropriate to extoll the health benefits of chocolate. Chocolate will be the most popular sweet treat eaten on Valentine’s Day and with good reason: the deep, rich taste of cocoa combined with sugar and fat produce an irresistible, creamy and complex combination of flavor on the tongue. To enjoy this occasional treat even more, you may be interested in knowing its science-backed health benefits.
Chocolate has long been the feel good food and now dark chocolate is cautiously being placed among the ranks of good-for-you foods, as well. Chocolate contains many naturally occurring chemicals that we have learned more about these past few years so here are a few tidbits of information if you are a chocolate lover!
Cocoa beans are very bitter and pungent by themselves— that’s why sugar and fat are added to increase the mouth feel and flavor of the beans. This bitterness comes from the flavanols in the chocolate, which also give it its antioxidant power and positive heart health attributes. Choose dark chocolate with at least 60-70% cocoa—the more the better in this case. These antioxidants help reduce inflammation and damage in our cells that we generate from normal body processes like breathing and exercise. Flavanols belong to a larger group of antioxidants called flavonoids, that are found in many plant-based foods and beverages. Research has confirmed that these naturally occurring compounds have other positive effects on vascular health, such as like lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the heart and brain, lowering cholesterol and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot. More recent research shows promise that it may even lower blood sugar levels.
The more chocolate is processed through roasting, fermentation and alkalizing to make it more appealing, the more flavanols are lost. Even in dark chocolate. Chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to maintain the strength of the flavanols in their processed chocolates so don’t be duped by current marketing claims. The most concentrated flavanols are found in those sources with higher amounts of cocoa, like cocoa powder (choose those that are not Dutch processed or treated with an alkali) baking chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and lastly, chocolate syrup. There are no health benefits to eating white chocolate because it’s not made from the cocoa bean.
How much chocolate can we eat guilt-free? No matter what the health promoting influences are that we reap from the cocoa bean, we still need to be mindful of the other ingredients in chocolate, like sugar and saturated fat, that piggy back onto the virtuous cocoa bean. Both sugar and fat add up to lots of calories in a hurry so a prudent approach to eating chocolate of any kind, is still the best route to good health. So go ahead—celebrate and savor an ounce of dark chocolate as a treat with a health boost on the side. And don’t forget to include the other flavonoid-rich foods in your daily diet like apples, tea, onions, cranberries and an occasional glass of red wine!