Is it possible that something so smooth, creamy and delicious can also be good for the heart? Historically, cocoa was used for a variety of conditions including stomach problems, inflammations, fatigue, chest pain and hemorrhoids. More recent studies have shown the health benefits, particularly heart-health benefits, of chocolate.
Cocoa contains phytochemicals called flavanols that have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease. In addition to flavanols, cocoa seeds contain postassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, caffeine; 45-55% fat, 8-15% protein and 30-45% carbohydrate.
Cocoa may have a higher antioxidant capacity than green tea, red wine and blueberries. But can chocolate really be a health food? The results are still mixed.
- Antioxidant power: Some studies suggest that the antioxidants in chocolate (the flavonoids) may prevent the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, thereby protecting the arteries of the heart. Some of the evidence is quite convincing, however, in excess, the saturated fat and calories in a milk chocolate bar can override any protective effects on the heart.
- Lowers cholesterol: We know that about 70% of the fat in chocolate is saturated fat. We also know that saturated fat is the key contributor to raising total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. So how can this be? A little over ½ of the saturated fat in chocolate is in a form called stearic acid, and stearic acid does not raise cholesterol levels like other saturated fats. In addition, the other 1/3 of the fat in chocolate is from monounsaturated fats, which may help to lower cholesterol levels.
- Prevents blood clots, relaxes your blood vessels and lowers blood pressure: In a University of California, Davis study, researchers found that people who drank a cocoa beverage had a decrease in blood clotting for the next six hours. Cocoa has also been shown to help relax and dilate the blood vessels to keep your blood flowing easily, which may help reduce blood pressure.
So what’s a chocolate lover to believe? The evidence is still not strong enough to make chocolate our next health food- but its opponents are quieting. How do you get the best chocolate has to offer?:
1. Choose your chocolate wisely. When shopping for chocolate, look for 70% or more cocoa (the flavonoids are in the cocoa), in alkali-free dark chocolate. Most of the chocolate on our shelves (milk, white and some dark) is loaded with sugar, processed chocolate liquor, and cocoa butter. These chocolates have little benefit. Processing can drastically reduce the flavanol content of chocolate and cocoa.
2. For weight maintenance or weight loss, practice portion control. An ounce has about 150 calories, so be mindful as to how often and how much you consume. Have just 1 or 2 squares and savor every bite!