Chocolate can be a Heart Healthy Treat

The Heart and Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Powder

Dark Chocolate is now recognized as a healthy treat if it is consumed in moderation. The flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to have heart protective properties.

For many of us, a day without chocolate is like a day without breathing; without chocolate one is simply missing one of the basic pleasures of life.

Aztec Emperor Montezuma knew the benefits of chocolate. He described chocolate as:

The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink (cocoa) permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.

Fortunately for chocolate lovers, research has uncovered that in moderation, dark chocolate can be a healthful food and part of a healthy diet. Monica Myklebust, MD, and Jenna Wunder, MPH, RD, from the University of Michigan’s Integrative Medicine Clinical Services include dark chocolate on their Healing Foods Pyramid.
History of Chocolate

According to history we have the Mayan Indians to thank for discovering chocolate or at least the cacao bean. They prepared a special drink from the cacao bean for religious ceremonies mixing this early form of chocolate with spices, wine, and water.

The Aztecs learned of chocolate from the Mayans. Aztec Emperor Montezuma was known to take no other beverage than the chocolatl or chocolate.

When Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico in 1519, this early Spanish explorer was introduced to the chocolate drink by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. Cortez is credited with bringing the chocolate drink back to Spain. The Spanish added vanilla, spices and sweeteners to their version of the drink.

It wasn’t until 1828 when Conrad van Houten in Holland developed the process for removing fat from the cocoa bean creating cocoa powder and cocoa butter, that chocolate could finally be molded into bars.

Heart Benefits of Chocolate

Researchers in the 21st century are the ones to thank for discovering the many heart and health benefits of chocolate. They discovered that cocoa has high levels of flavanoids that have several benefits on the blood vessels and the heart or cardioprotective effects.

Some of the heart healthy benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa powder discovered in various research projects include:

Antioxidants, specifically the flavanoids, help defend the body against and neutralize free radicals in the body, and protect the heart.
Increases HDL or the ‘good cholesterol.’
Reduces the tendency of blood to clot.
Decreases the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) by increasing blood flow.
Reduces the overall risk of heart disease.

Chocolate is only one of the foods known to contain flavanoids. Flavanoids are also found in black tea, green tea, red wine, various fruits and berries, in addition to cocoa and cocoa products.

Head Benefits of Chocolate

Another benefit of chocolate is that it may improve mood by increasing serotonin levels in the brain which may help ease depression. Eating chocolate increases the release of endorphins, the natural hormones released by the brain that help increase feelings of pleasure and a sense of well being.

Vitamins and Minerals in Chocolate

The vitamins and minerals present in chocolate products vary depending on the recipe and the additional ingredients used.

Whitney and Rolfes list the Vitamins and Minerals found in a Dark Chocolate Bar in their textbook, Understanding Nutrition. According to the textbook a dark chocolate bar contains small amounts of Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate and Selenium as well as the minerals Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc and Copper. Other vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin D, Vitamin A and Calcium may be present in higher amounts in recipes using milk.

Many of the minerals present in chocolate are needed so the body functions optimally and is better able to metabolize food into energy.

Types of Chocolate

There are three main types of chocolate available: dark, milk and white.

Dark, Semisweet Chocolate

Unsweetened chocolate is combined with added sweeteners and cocoa butter, which must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor. Dark chocolate has two to four times (or more) the amount of flavonoids than milk chocolate.

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is made from unsweetened chocolate combined with added cocoa butter, milk, sweeteners and flavorings. Milk chocolate made in the United States contains at least 10% cocoa mass. With less cocoa, milk chocolate has less beneficial flavonoids

White Chocolate

White chocolate is the term used to describe products made from cocoa butter, milk solids and nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners. Since white chocolate contains no cocoa solids, it has none of the health benefits from flavanoids.

Recommendations for Eating Chocolate

The key to enjoying chocolate as part of a healthy diet is to remember everything in moderation. The primary reason is that chocolate is not a low calorie food. One typical ounce of chocolate contains 135 calories, much of it from fat.

Most experts agree that when enjoyed in moderation a small piece of dark chocolate can be included as part of a healthy diet for most healthy people. The key points when including chocolate to a diet for the health benefits:

Choose chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa, or more.
Eat in small amounts, one square or one ounce of chocolate per day.
Consume healthy foods. Don’t let chocolate replace healthy foods.

So enjoy chocolate in moderation and remember to savor the moment.

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