Valentine's Day FYI: Is Chocolate Really Good For Your Heart?
Chocolate is an especially popular food this time of year. Many people use dark chocolate's heart healthy benefits as an excuse to enjoy it daily. Chocolate has even been labeled as “superfood,” but, is it? Or is it just an excuse to eat more of it?
First, a bit of trivia about the origin of chocolate.
Chocolate is a by-product of the cocoa bean or cacao bean. In the 15th and 16th centuries, people in Mexico made a foamy drink with the cacao bean, and spiced it with chili, allspice, honey or vanilla. The beverage was expensive to make and enjoyed mostly by the elite. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the first form of solid chocolate was developed in Italy. Today more than 50 percent of the cocoa harvested annually comes from West Africa. In the United States market alone, chocolate sales average over $19 billion a year. Consumers demand for the organic version of chocolate is also on the rise.
So is chocolate healthy or not?
There is some evidence which shows that chocolate may be good for the heart, as it has been linked to increased blood flow in arteries and may help to lower high blood pressure. Chocolate may improve a person’s mood and pleasure by boosting serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain – the happy hormones. These benefits occur because chocolate is high in antioxidants. And what are antioxidants? Our bodies contain molecules which cause; among many things, aging, tissue damage, and some diseases. Antioxidants prevent and repair damage caused by these molecules. But before you stock up on chocolate bars, it’s important to understand that not all chocolate is created equal. The higher percentage of cocoa, the higher the level of antioxidants.
When you buy dark chocolate consider this:
- Choose chocolate that has greater than 60% cocoa
- When reading the food label, avoid chocolate that has “alkali” or “dutching.” This process reduces the health benefit in chocolate. Even though the “dutching” process gives the chocolate a darker color, it is not rich in antioxidants.
- Milk binds to antioxidants in chocolate, reducing its value; therefore, milk chocolate is not a good antioxidant source
- Avoid drinking milk with dark chocolate, for the same reason listed above
- White chocolate contains no cocoa solids and therefore is not a good source of antioxidants
- Choose chocolate made from cocoa butter instead of fats such as palm and coconut oils
- Choose chocolate made without the use of ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils
- Dark chocolate has calories, fat and sugar so eat sparingly
But yes, chocolate does have some potential health downsides.
- Remember….A true dark chocolate will never have sugar listed first in the ingredient list! Dark chocolate is rich and has complex flavors, so eat it slowly to increase your enjoyment!
- Avoid chocolate that has a grayish tone or white spots on the surface. Chocolate should be glossy
- Caffeine – there are measurable amounts of caffeine in dark chocolate and individuals who are sensitive to caffeine should be aware of this
- Kidney Stones – chocolate contains a substance called oxalates which can lead to an increased risk of kidney stones. Individuals who are prone to developing kidney stones should avoid eating chocolate
Make Valentine's day a heart-healthy day.
So for your upcoming Valentine’s celebration, perhaps instead of eating chocolate and worrying about the extra calories that come with it, try eating apples dipped in dark chocolate fudge! It might be just the thing to do to increase your antioxidant intake! And don’t forget - you can also purchase the natural cocoa in bulk and use it for other foods, such as smoothies and baked goods.