Nothing beats a good piece of chocolate. It’s rich, smooth, creamy and makes us feel good, until the guilt sets in. Chocolate’s mood-enhancing qualities are an obvious reason why it is so strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, as a gift for lovers and loved ones.
Chocolate's Dark Secret
There’s no getting around the fact that chocolate is a high fat food. But there is growing evidence that, in small quantities, some kinds of chocolate may actually be good for you. Dark chocolate is naturally rich in flavonoids (or more specifically, flavones, a sub-class of these antioxidants). These compounds are thought to lower blood pressure and help protect against heart disease—among other things. Recent studies conducted both in the U.S. and Europe seem to support chocolate’s beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, encouraging chocolate manufacturers, such as Mars, to develop proprietary methods of processing cocoa beans aimed specifically at preserving flavonoid content. Traditional roasting and fermentation methods are thought to destroy up to three-quarters of these compounds.
What about the Fat?
It’s still hard to think of chocolate as a health food. Part of the allure is the guilty pleasure of eating it. But before we raid the candy store, it’s worth remembering that chocolate is not a low calorie food. Aserving of Dove dark chocolate (40 grams) contains 210 calories and 13 grams of fat, 8 of which are saturated, although some of this saturated fat is in the form of stearic acid, which is converted by the liver into a "healthier" monounsaturated fat.
Healthy chocolate sounds like a dream come true, but chocolate hasn't gained the status of health food quite yet. Still, chocolate's reputation is on the rise, as a growing number of studies suggest that it can be a heart-healthy choice.
Chocolate and its main ingredient, cocoa, appear to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Flavones in cocoa beans have antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease. Flavones — which are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate — also help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function.
In addition, some research has linked chocolate consumption to reduced risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack. One caveat: 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. On the other hand, cocoa itself, unlike chocolate, is low in sugar and fat while offering potential health benefits. If you enjoy chocolate flavor, add plain cocoa to your low-fat milk or morning oats.