A National Confectioners Association survey recently revealed that 94% of Americans reported wanting chocolate on Valentine’s Day. I didn’t participate in the study but you can count me among them. I want it every day. I’m health conscious. Read on.
For hundreds of years however, Europeans felt chocolate was heart healthy and even aided the liver and one’s digestion, among other benefits.
Chocolate in this country has traditionally been an indulgence, where the expectation is merely good taste and satisfaction – with some calories and fat.
That’s changing. A lot of research during the past 20 years or so is telling us that chocolate can be heart-healthy, and via a variety of mechanisms.
Science for chocolate nerds
Two components in chocolate seem to be giving the benefits: antioxidants and the fat.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, has long been associated with numerous measures of health benefits and reduced health risks, including lower risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
Chocolate is rich in a subclass of antioxidants called “flavonoids”. Catechins, epicatechins, and procyanidins are the main flavonoids in chocolate and they’re present in higher concentrations than in most other plant foods, even tea and red wine on a per-serving basis. Dark chocolate is the third largest contributor of antioxidants to the American diet, after fruits and vegetables.
The fat in cocoa is mostly saturated – usually something we advise reducing in the diet. But not all saturated fats are created equally, and the primary one in chocolate is stearic acid, which seems to have more neutral, not harmful, effects.
Here are some of the benefits studies have consistently shown for chocolate:
- Lower blood pressure: The reduction isn’t huge, but it seems to lower both the top number (systolic) by about 5 points and the bottom number (diastolic) by about 3 points. Not huge, but better than for most “treat” foods!
- Improved markers of cardiovascular health: It seems to reduce LDL-cholesterol (the bad one) and raise HDL-cholesterol (good one) – at least when it replaces butter. It doesn’t top olive oil in this respect, but swapping a pastry for some chocolate makes sense.
- Reduced “platelet aggregation”: This is beneficial because it helps prevent plaque build-up in your arteries.
How to do chocolate right
Yes, chocolate can fit into a healthy diet. It might even be a good thing, in the right amount. Here are a few tips if you want to have chocolate regularly:
- Go dark. Really dark. The benefits come when the cocoa content is 70% of higher.
- Take 1. Figure 1 ounce a day (about 30 grams). It’s only about 160 calories, so it’s lower in calories than most desserts!
- Swap right. Use your daily chocolate to replace lower-quality foods. This usually means junk snacks. You’ll find that an ounce of dark chocolate is satisfying.
- No chewing allowed! Bite a small piece, notice the crackle of the bar, and let it melt in your mouth. Why rush?
- Take a powder. Leverage the flavor of cocoa powder! Hot chocolate, smoothies, on Greek yogurt! Even shake it onto sliced apples or added it to coffee. It’s almost calorie-free. Trader Joe’s and Ghirardelli both have great cocoa powder.
- Don’t “go Dutch”. Cocoa labeled as “processed with alkali”, or “Dutched cocoa”, has lost most of the antioxidants. I avoid this kind of chocolate. It’s not harmful, just has no antioxidants.
If you have reflux or heartburn, chocolate can irritate the stomach and stimulate acid production. Chocolate doesn’t have much caffeine, but dark chocolate has more than milk chocolate, and it does have theobromine, which can also get you buzzy if you have it before bedtime. Also, the antioxidant activity can vary, based on origin and handling methods.
Finally, file this under “nice-to-know”: Mondelez, the huge mega candy company, has a goal of 200,000 cocoa farmers participating in its “Cocoa Life” sustainable cocoa farming program, by year 2020. They recently announced that they are nearly halfway there, with participation nearly doubling in the year 2015 alone. Props to Mondelez.
Chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Call it a gift from the heart, and for the heart!