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Consuming M&Ms by the bagful isn’t going to help your heart—but occasional snacking on chocolate with a high cocoa content can. Researchers extol the health benefits of dark chocolate, but quality and moderation are key to reaping its rich rewards.
It’s always a joy to find out that one of your favorite, formerly forbidden foods can actually be good for you. The Mediterranean Diet brings red wine back into your life because it’s high in antioxidants. The French Paradox says go ahead, have a little cheese—it has calcium, and after all, the French don’t get fat.
And then...the new Chocolate Contradiction comes along and proposes that one of the most sinful treats around can benefit your heart. And your mood. And, in spite of the rumors, it won’t make zits sprout on your face.
You’re only too eager to eat that up. But exactly how far can you take your love of chocolate—and can you really justify having Almond Joys on a regular basis?
The sweet news is that clinical investigations are discovering the healthful benefits of dark chocolate—and they’re not all sponsored by Hershey. Increasing amounts of research show that although chocolate can have large amounts of both fat and sugar, it also contains cardio-protective flavonols, a type of plant-based antioxidant that lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Although chocolate has a significant fat content, much of it is what’s called oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that doesn’t affect blood cholesterol and may help increase the good lipids or HDLs,” says Dr. Susan Mitchell, registered dietitian and SuperTarget health and nutrition expert.
“Some very current research on chocolate benefits to date also shows that if you already have high blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder, a daily serving of flavonol-rich dark chocolate may lower your blood pressure and improve insulin resistance” (Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association, July 2005). Insulin resistance—a sign that your body is failing to properly control blood sugar—is a major culprit in what’s called metabolic syndrome, a grouping of indicators including high cholesterol and high blood pressure that often precedes symptomatic heart disease.
In addition, a recent study by the University of California discovered that healthy adults who ate a 1.6- ounce bar of dark chocolate every day improved blood vessel function, as vessels dilated and relaxed more easily than in those people not consuming chocolate (American Journal of Hypertension, June 2005). And Swiss researchers have found that dark chocolate might even help smokers out by slowing hardening of the arteries (Heart, January 2006).
However, this doesn’t give consumers carte blanche to dive into a river of cocoa like a kid in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Practically all responsible health experts temper enthusiasm for these studies with a good dose of realism. “This doesn’t mean that people should eat lots of dark chocolate in place of other foods that benefit the heart,” says Mitchell, “but rather that all flavonol-rich foods, of which dark chocolate is included, should be part of a heart-healthy diet—in reasonable amounts for chocolate since it’s still high in fat and calories. Other studies have found that flavonol-rich foods such as some fruits, veggies, tea and red wine might offer cardiovascular benefits as well.”
And health experts don’t want to see consumers replacing good old-fashioned plant-based foods with gooey chocolate on a regular basis. “If you’re eating a couple of ounces of chocolate every time you turn around, I’m not so sure that you’re working with your palate to be satisfied with things that are much more healthful in many more ways,” warns nutritionist Dr. Rovenia Brock, PhD, known more informally as BET News medical correspondent Dr. Ro. The other sticking point is that if you’re addicted to the most popular commercial brands and consistently reach for milk chocolate you’ll hardly be doing your heart any favors, since it lacks the intense levels of flavonols of dark chocolate.
“It should definitely be pure, good chocolate,” adds Brock. “It can’t be some of this milk chocolate stuff that’s masquerading as good chocolate that we typically eat in this country. It is not picking up a Snickers bar, by any means.”
That’s because valuable antioxidant levels are directly related to the cocoa content in any given chocolate, and dark chocolate has more—as much as two to four times more than milk chocolate, according to the Mayo Clinic. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, the fruit of the tropical tree Theobroma (“food of the gods”) cacao. The beans are roasted, which gives chocolate its characteristic flavor, then finely ground to extract the cocoa butter, which is fat, from the chocolate liquor that remains solid at room temperature. The cocoa content of any piece of chocolate is the total percentage that is made from cocoa beans, including chocolate liquor and cocoa butter.
Cocoa content remains an indicator of quality. Cocoa beans are the most expensive ingredient in chocolate, so chocolate with a higher cocoa content costs more to make than that with a lower cocoa content. In Europe, all chocolate sold must indicate on the label its cocoa content, but that is not the case here in the States. The FDA only requires that a product labeled “milk chocolate” must contain a minimum of 10% cocoa.
Following are the various varieties of chocolate you find at your local stores:
* Unsweetened, baking or bitter chocolate has 100% cocoa content, and contains between 50% and 58% cocoa butter.
* Dark chocolate includes bittersweet, semisweet or sweet chocolate. It is unsweetened chocolate that has sugar, lecithin and vanilla added to it. Dark chocolate generally ranges from 50% to 75% cocoa content. Bittersweet chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor; semisweet and sweet can contain from 15% to 35%.
* Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that has had dry milk added to it. It must contain at least 12% milk solids and 10% chocolate liquor.
* Couverture is a glossy, professional quality coating chocolate that contains at least 32% cocoa butter and is sold in specialty candy-making shops.
* White chocolate is not true chocolate. It contains no chocolate liquor and little chocolate flavor. It is usually a mix of sugar, cocoa butter (fat), milk solids, lecithin and vanilla. (Beware of white chocolate!)
Health-conscious chocolatiers have gotten hip and are now including cocoa content on their labels for the benefit of in-the-know consumers. While some brands of chocolate contain as much as 50% sugar, there are now more natural varieties with less sugar and even no sugar. Other trends include organic chocolate made from organically grown cocoa beans, as well as chocolate containing other healthy ingredients like ginger, known for its anti-bacterial and digestive benefits, or even hoodia gordonii, which is supposed to suppress appetite.
This new chocolate consciousness is good news for most folks as more healthy options gain a foothold on the market—though you should still exercise caution not to get swept up in a sugar high. “If you have a sweet tooth and you’re going to have chocolate anyway, then I would say, okay, definitely go for the dark chocolate,” says Brock. “But I’m not going to encourage people to go out and get chocolate in place of blueberries or strawberries. Chocolate is not a vitamin source.”
But if you’re inclined to see your dark indulgence as a semi-regular treat, take another look. ”I think it’s fine that chocolate be part of your discretionary or splurge calories, particularly if it is dark chocolate,” says Mitchell. “The idea is to permit yourself to enjoy chocolate in reasonable amounts—without the guilt.” Now there is a concept that can really melt in your mouth.