Treat your Health to Dark Chocolate

by Elisa Olivier-Nielsen, MA, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, EON Consulting
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, the thought of heart-shaped chocolates filled with fruits, nuts, coconut and honey certainly makes our mouths water. Chocolate seems to be a part of the universal language of love, but does it actually benefit our hearts?
Chocolate comes from the seed of cacao beans, and it is actually bitter because of its high content of flavanols, which are a class of very powerful antioxidants that combat free-radicals’ damage in our bodies. After undergoing extensive processing (drying, roasting and fermenting), chocolate becomes less bitter and is used to make cocoa powder for both dark and milk chocolate.
Milk chocolate, with its sweeter flavor, is much lower in flavanols than dark chocolate. The higher percentage of cocoa solids in a chocolate product confers its bitter taste and flavanol content.
On a side note, white chocolate is made with cocoa butter, not cacao beans, and it contains no flavanols.
In addition to antioxidants, dark chocolate is rich in vital nutrients such as dietary fiber, magnesium, potassium and zinc that can positively improve our health and lower the risk of heart disease.
Several studies on dark chocolate uncovered the following findings:
It can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce nitric oxide, which lowers the resistance to blood flow and reduces blood pressure.
It can significantly decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol, increase HDL and lower total LDL for those with high cholesterol.
It can reduce insulin resistance, which is another common risk factor for diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
It can reduce the risk of death from heart disease.
Eating chocolate two or more times per week can lower the overall risk of heart disease and the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries.
Dark chocolate also helps reduce the risk of stroke.
Despite of its rich nutrients and potential health benefits, chocolate comes in many forms (white, milk or dark) with wide range of sugar, fat and calories. Moderation is key.
The recommendation is to choose dark chocolate rich in heart-healthy flavanols with at least 60% to 70% of cocoa solids and consume 1 ounce maximum per day so the health benefits are not overshadowed by the added calories and saturated fat.