With Valentine’s Day this past weekend, I’m sure many of you received chocolates from your special someone. They probably wanted the chocolates to touch your heart – they may not have been thinking it would do that in more than one way. The thoughtfulness of that someone may warm your heart, but the chocolate itself may make your heart work better.
Dark chocolate, in particular, has been shown to reduce blood pressure and lower bad cholesterol (LDL) by up to 10%. Because chocolate is rich in flavonoids, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Flavonoids are plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Flavonoids in cocoa have also been found to prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries. Other foods that contain high amounts of flavonoids include red wine, tea, cranberries, peanuts, strawberries, apples, and many other fruits and vegetables.
Another benefit of chocolate is it helps the body process nitric oxide, a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure. Nitric oxide causes arteries to dilate lowering blood pressure. Red meat, fish, olive oil, nuts, and pomegranate juice also help the body to process nitric oxide.
Chocolate is made up of 3 kinds of fats, only one of which negatively affects cholesterol levels. Oleic acid is a healthy monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil. The second fat is stearic acid, which is a saturated fat that research shows has a neutral effect on cholesterol. Palmitic acid is the third fat found in chocolate, and it is a saturated fat which can raise cholesterol. Therefore, only 1/3 of the fat in chocolate is bad for you.
In order to choose the healthiest chocolate, don’t assume that the higher cacao percentage, the better the chocolate is for you. Where the cocoa beans were grown plays a big part as well. On average, cocoa beans grown in Ecuador, Columbia, and on the Ivory Coast have almost twice the flavanoid content of beans from the Dominican Republic and Peru. Also, the Amazon and Forestaro varieties of cocoa beans are higher in flavanoids than the Criollo variety.
Alkalization of cocoa powder decreases the flavanoid content. Most cooks often prefer the smoother taste of alkalized or “dutched” cocoa. However, the dutching process dramatically decreases the flavanoid content. For maximum flavanoid content, choose un-dutched cocoa powder.
Preliminary research suggested that mixing milk and cocoa might diminish the bioavailability of flavanoids in cocoa, but several recent studies have shown no significance in flavanoid absorption from cocoa made with or without milk. This is good news for those of you, like me, who enjoy milk chocolate.
So as you’re enjoying the chocolates, think that you are doing something good for your heart at the same time.