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Heart-Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Gayle Baingo, R.D.

It’s no secret that fruits, vegetables and grains provide many health benefits - we've been told that for years. But did you know that eating chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, could benefit your heart? It’s all about the flavonoids in the chocolate.

What are flavonoids?

Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods. They can be found in a wide array of foods and beverages such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine. There are more than 4,000 combinations of flavonoids.

Have you had your flavonoids today?

Flavonoids provide important protective benefits to plants, such as repairing damage and shielding from environmental toxins. When we consume plant-based foods rich in flavonoids – like dark chocolate – it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power. Antioxidants are believed to help the body's cells resist damage caused by free radicals, which are formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing or environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke and chemicals. When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage occurs, leading to high cholesterol and plaque build up on the walls of the arteries.

In addition to their antioxidant capabilities, flavonoids may also:

• Help reduce platelet activation
• Allow blood vessels to move blood more freely
• Positively affect the balance of certain hormone-like compounds, which are thought to play a role in cardiovascular health.

Forms of chocolate

Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, let’s look at what forms of chocolate would be ideal:

• When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce its naturally bitter taste. Flavonoids provide this strong taste. The more chocolate is processed (such as fermentation, alkalizing, roasting), the more flavonoids are lost. Most commercial chocolates fit this category.
• Dark chocolate appears to retain the highest level of flavonoids. So your best bet is to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
• Some chocolate manufacturers are studying ways to retain the highest level of flavonoids while still providing acceptable taste. Stay tuned for more information in this area.

What about all of the fat in chocolate?

You may be surprised to find out that chocolate isn’t as bad as once perceived. The fat in chocolate, from cocoa butter, is comprised of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. Saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL-cholesterol and risk for heart disease. Some points to consider include:

• Be cautious as to the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. What wreaks havoc on most chocolate products are the fat and calories that accompany other ingredients.
• There is currently no established serving size of chocolate to reap these cardiovascular benefits. However, what we do know is you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small 1-ounce piece of dark chocolate once in awhile.

More research in this area is needed to determine just how much chocolate-lovers can eat in order to acquire cardio-protective benefits. Until that time, enjoy chocolate in moderate portions a few times per week. Don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries. Here’s to your heart-health!

Gayle Baingo, R.D., is a registered dietitian at Flagstaff Medical Center