If you love chocolate, then take heart. Studies indicate that dark chocolate supports heart health.† Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, believes there could be a connection between chocolate eaters and cardiovascular health. He says that "numerous studies of dark chocolate … have demonstrated favorable effects."
Katz is not alone in this premise, either. Research analysis presented at the 2010 American Academy of Neurology (AAN) Annual Meeting in Toronto found that people who ate one serving of chocolate per week derived meaningful benefits.
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says research suggests that chocolate “keeps your bad cholesterol from misbehaving.” He continues, “There are a few studies that indicate even small amounts of chocolate can support blood flow. One of those studies was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It states that adults who were pre-hypertensive saw decreases in blood pressure after four months of eating 30 calories of dark chocolate a day.
You may be wondering just what’s behind chocolate’s health benefits. Chocolate is a flavonoid—a pigment in plants and fruits that acts as an antioxidant to protect against damage from free radicals. In the body, flavonoids enhance the beneficial activities of vitamin C and, therefore, can help keep the body strong. Tests show that the flavonoids in chocolate are particularly potent antioxidants. Chocolate also contains some plant sterols, B vitamins, magnesium, copper, potassium, and other heart-healthy substances.
As you may guess, not just any kind of chocolate provides these benefits. Here are some things to keep in mind when you select your chocolate:
Eat the least processed kind of chocolate. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce its naturally bitter taste—which, by the way, is provided by the flavonoids (polyphenols). The more chocolate is processed (such as alkalizing or roasting), the more flavonoids are lost. Most commercial chocolates fit this category, so choose the least processed (preferably organic) forms. Also, be sure your dark chocolate is at least 60% cocoa by weight.
Go for the dark chocolate. Dark chocolate appears to retain the highest level of flavonoids, so your best bet is to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate or white chocolate, which really isn’t chocolate at all. Here’s why: Milk chocolate often is higher in unhealthy saturated fats and sugar and much lower in flavonoids than high-antioxidant dark chocolate. White chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa or antioxidant health benefits.
Even the fats in chocolate, from cocoa butter, contain oleic acid—a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil, among other healthy fats. So go ahead and savor those chocolates this Valentine's Day—as long as they are dark chocolate, minimally processed, and eaten in moderation.