Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol 11 - Chocolate – a Valentine's tradition is good for the heart
By: Sheila Kealey (2006/02/14)
10 individuals like chocolate.”
- Sandra Boynton,
Chocolate the Consuming Passion
I must confess – hardly a day goes by that I don’t eat chocolate. And I’m a bit of a “chocolate snob.” When it comes to this indulgence, not any chocolate will do! Hershey’s Kisses don’t cut it, and it’s the rich dark chocolate that I prefer. But recent research suggests that being particular when it comes to chocolate could be a good thing.
Chocolate is rich in natural health-promoting substances called flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants also found in large quantities in green tea, wine, purple grape juice, and many fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants can help stabilize free radicals that have the potential to damage our cells’ DNA. A mounting body of evidence shows that flavonoids can help protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
Much of the research investigating chocolate has centered around heart health, with numerous test tube and human studies suggesting that flavonoids in chocolate had positive effects on potential risk factors for heart disease. For example one study compared the blood pressure and arterial function of two groups of moderately overweight adults. One group consumed extra dark chocolate (60% cacao), while the other consumed a low-flavonoid placebo. Researchers measured blood pressure before and 2 hours after the little chocolate feast (2 servings) and found that the chocolate-eating volunteers blood pressure improved, and their blood vessels were better able to dilate and increase blood flow. Of course, more research is needed, and longer term studies are in the works.
One recent study investigated the Kuna Indians (a tribe living on Panamanian coast islands), who have a very low rate of cardiovascular disease and hypertension despite a diet with plenty of salty foods. They attributed the low hypertension to a diet rich in cocoa, since the Kuna boil their drinking water with cocoa beans. Interestingly, Kuna who have moved to the mainland and consume less cocoa do not exibit the same cardiovascular health as their island dwelling kin.
Although chocolate is high in saturated fat, most of these fats are in the form of stearic and oleic acid, which do not raise cholesterol levels. In fact, some studies have shown that the flavonoids in chocolate can help lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol while boosting "good" HDL cholesterol. Researchers believe that the flavonoid antioxidants prevent platelets from sticking to the lining of blood vessels, inhibiting clotting and preventing plaque from forming.
What Kind of Chocolate is Best?
Chocolate with the highest concentration of cocoa powder is the richest in protective flavonoids. Because dark chocolate is more concentrated in cocoa content, it is higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate. White chocolate has no cocoa.
If you’re thinking of adding chocolate to your daily diet, the old adage “everything in moderation" is important to consider. Although rich in antioxidants and potentially heart healthy, chocolate is high in calories, fat, and sugar with few other protective nutrients An ounce of chocolate (dark, milk, or semisweet) has 140 to 150 calories and 8 to 10 grams of fat. You certainly won’t be helping your heart if you eat a lot of chocolate and gain weight! If you’re looking for a healthy antioxidant boost, enjoy a little dark chocolate, but don’t forget fruits and vegetables, which contain other protective substances like phytochemicals, vitamins, and fiber.