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February is the Month of Hearts and Chocolates

By Kay Searfoss, RD, CDE

LCO Community Health Center


Would it surprise you to hear that chocolate may be good for your heart? Chocolate and its main ingredient, cocoa, appear to reduce risk factors for heart disease in some studies. Flavanols in cocoa beans have antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage which may cause heart disease. Flavanols — which are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate — also help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel function.


In addition, some research has linked chocolate consumption to reduced risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack. But more research is needed to confirm these results.


In the meantime, if you want to add chocolate to your diet, do so in moderation. Why? Most commercial chocolate has ingredients that add fat, sugar and calories. And too much can contribute to weight gain, a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.


Dark chocolate contains up to 2-3 times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids than milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar, whereas milk chocolate contains anywhere from 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, milk in some form, and sugar. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk, thus offering no antioxidant rich health benefits. Cocoa is sometimes treated with alkali, or Dutch-processed, to improve the flavor and appearance. However this causes a significant loss of flavanols. Natural cocoa, found in the baking aisle, retains the most flavanols and health benefit and is a great option for those seeking the benefits of chocolate without the extra calories.


Dark chocolate is high in calories (150-170 calories per ounce) and can contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess. However, chocolate, like nuts can induce satiety, so the longer term effects on weight are not clear. It also contains a moderate amount of saturated fat, which can negatively affect cholesterol levels, though its heart-protective effects from flavanols appear to outweigh the risk.


Dark chocolate and cocoa contain fiber, iron, copper ,magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus, as well as flavanols. Chocolate also contains caffeine and the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the higher the caffeine content. Two ounces of 70% dark chocolate contains about 50-60 mg caffeine. (In comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains 100-200 milligrams of caffeine.)


Made from the seed of the cocoa tree, chocolate is one of the best sources of antioxidants on the planet. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than any other fruits tested, including blueberries. Of course, this doesn't mean you should go all out and consume lots of chocolate every day (or omit the blueberries!). Chocolate is still loaded with calories and easy to overeat. If you are counting calories or following a diabetes meal plan, be sure to include the calories and carbohydrate from chocolate and cocoa in your daily allowance.


Here are some tips for incorporating chocolate in your diet in a healthy way:


Choose 70% dark chocolate or higher to obtain the most flavanols and health benefits. Keep in mind that the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the greater the bitter flavor.


Serve a few squares of dark chocolate or chocolate curls with fresh fruit and nuts for an easy elegant dessert.Try taking a small piece and allowing it to melt slowly in your mouth. This technique may offer a different, more pleasurable experience than quickly chewing and swallowing the somewhat bitter chocolate.


· Have a square or two after dinner and try to really savor them.


· If you want the benefits of cocoa without the calories in chocolate, consider making hot cocoa without added sugar (or use a bit of maple syrup or stevia instead of sugar).


· Blend 1-2 tablespoons of unprocessed cocoa with one large frozen banana for a dairy-free version of chocolate ice cream.


· Mix cocoa powder with your breakfast oatmeal or coffee for an antioxidant rich wake up treat (but watch the added sugar!)


Finally, be aware that a lot of the chocolate on the market is not healthy, choose quality stuff — dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content. Dark chocolates typically contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. Choose small portions and try to limit yourself to high quality dark chocolate or cocoa. Most experts agree that the recommended "dose" of dark chocolate is approximately 1 to 2 ounces per day. And don’t forget that even though dark chocolate is considered a (somewhat) healthy treat, it still packs plenty of calories so adjust your diet accordingly or, better yet, take a longer walk or snowshoe hike to compensate.


Happy Valentine’s Day and Heart Health Month!