February is not just about Valentine’s Day; it’s also Heart Healthy Month. I didn’t want to end this month without letting you in on this one interesting fact—studies have been consistently showing that eating moderate amounts of chocolate has benefits for heart health! Sounds great, right? But what does “benefits” mean? How do they work? And what exactly is “moderate amounts?” Does everything with chocolate in it have these benefits? Should I be starting my days with a big bowl of chocolate cereal?
Let’s start at the beginning. Cocoa, the bean from a tree indigenous to South America, is removed and processed in many ways to provide us the delicious treat we refer to as chocolate. How this bean is processed and prepared changes the health benefits. The more processed (i.e., fermented, roasted, dried) chocolate is, the less healthy components it will have. But one component in particular called flavonols has been linked with improving heart function in many ways.
Flavonols are antioxidants. They protect cells from environmental toxins and help cells resist damage caused by free radicals (naturally occurring by-products of metabolism that can cause harm to cells.) If the body does not have enough antioxidants to combat these free radicals, the chances of increasing damage, such as an increase of plaque on artery walls of the heart, may occur. When plaque builds up on artery walls, the walls narrow and decrease blood flow to the heart, making it work much much harder. Other benefits connected to heart health and flavonols include decreasing blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and increasing blood-clotting factors.
These flavonols in chocolate impart a strong, pungent taste. Natural processing of cocoa into chocolate decreases this flavor; therefore, the more processed and less bitter tasting, the lower amount of flavonols. So, to get the most out of your chocolate cravings, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Watch out for “extra” ingredients in chocolate that add extra calories and sugars, such as caramel (my personal favorite) and other sweet fillings like marshmallow or fruit.
- The higher the cocoa content in chocolate, the more flavonols. Though there is no amount of cocoa or recommended intake for chocolate to provide all the benefits mentioned above, having a few ounces a week of a 70% cocoa or higher chocolate is the consensus of the best choice to get these benefits.
- And as delicious as chocolate milk is, unless it is made from 70% cocoa, it will not count as heart healthy. Sadly, same goes for your favorite cocoa-puffed cereal, even if it is organic.
So, let’s do all we can to help our heart be as strong as possible. And if it takes eating some dark chocolate to do that, then count me in! I don’t know about you, but enjoying a delicious piece of chocolate makes me feel happy, and that can go along way to having a healthy mind. And healthy heart!