Is Chocolate Good for Your Heart?
Why a little, in moderation, may be beneficial
Chocolate has gotten a lot of media coverage in recent years because it's believed that it may help protect your cardiovascular system. The reasoning being that the cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids.
Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They can be found in a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, 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 that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, it can become damaged by free radicals. For example, an increase in oxidation can cause low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad" cholesterol, to form plaque on the artery walls.
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.
These plant chemicals aren’t only found in chocolate. In fact, a wide variety of foods and beverages are rich in flavonols. These include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine.
Are all types of chocolate healthy?
Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.
Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost.
Most commercial chocolates are highly processed. Although it was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels of flavanols, recent research indicates that, depending on how the dark chocolate was processed, this may not be true. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates. But for now, your best choices are likely dark chocolate over milk chocolate (especially milk chocolate that is loaded with other fats and sugars) and cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing (cocoa that is treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity).
What about all of the fat in chocolate?
You may be surprised to learn that chocolate isn’t as bad for you as once believed.
The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up 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. You may know that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
But, research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. Still, this does not mean you can eat all the dark chocolate you’d like.
First, be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. Watch out for those extra ingredients that can add lots of extra fat and calories. Second, there is currently no established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular benefits it may offer, and more research is needed in this area. However, we do know that you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate once in a while.
So, for now, enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., 1 ounce) a few times per week, and don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries.