Copyright 2010 – Joe Smulevitz
You’ve probably heard the news. More and more research is showing that chocolate is good for your health, especially the heart. However, only certain forms such as unadulterated chocolate from pure, ground, roasted chocolate beans provide heart healthy benefits. Did past generations know that less processed chocolate is better for their health? For centuries it was identified as a beneficial food for circulatory problems and reducing angina. By the 1800’s, much of its connection to health was lost, with the industrialization of chocolate production that led to the addition of milk and sugar. This ended the perception that chocolate is healthy for the heart. Recently the health association with chocolate has come full circle.
The resurgence of interest in the health benefits of chocolate should be given to the Kuna Indians, living off the coast of Panama. Scientists observed that the island-dwelling members of the Kuna tribe seldom have high blood pressure and have a low occurrence of heart disease. Tribal members who had migrated to other areas had a much higher rate of heart disease. What was the secret of the island-dwelling tribe? The Kuna Indians in their indigenous villages consumed as much as five cups a day of various cocoa-based beverages. The mainland-dwelling Kuna, drank very little of the same cocoa-based beverage (cocoa is derived from cacao beans, which are grown in pods on the cacao tree in tropical regions). From their studies, researchers determined that the cacao bean, from which chocolate is made, is a rich source of heart healthy flavonoids, healthful plant pigments having antioxidant properties that protect cells from oxidative damage.
Cocoa products have a higher total flavonoid content on a per weight basis than any other plant-based food, including red wine, green tea, blueberries, cranberries and many other fruits and vegetables. Dietary sources of flavonoids have gained considerable medical interest in their potential to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that the flavonoids in cocoa stimulate the production of nitric oxide, a compound in the body that helps regulate blood flow, inflammation, and blood pressure.
Unfortunately, natural flavonoids present in the cacao bean is mostly destroyed by processing, depleting them of their antioxidant properties. Look for organic, dark chocolate, containing a minimum of 70% cocoa solids content with the least sugar and other additives. Because dark chocolate has a high cocoa content, it continues to retain higher levels of flavonoids. The daily consumption of 2 or 3 ounces a day of good quality dark chocolate, may supply the body with an ample dose of flavonoids to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Keep in mind, even dark chocolate is high in fat and calories, and needs to be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. As an alternative, use natural, unsweetened cocoa powder or dried cacao nibs (smashed cacao beans).
The following chocolate products have little if any heart healthy properties and should be avoided.
- Milk chocolate that contains milk solids and fats.
- White chocolate has a high content of fat from both milk and cocoa butter and also contains sugar.
- Chocolate candies and treats. These products are usually made with hydrogenated fats or refined sugars.
- Any chocolate product labelled “artificial chocolate” or “chocolate-flavored.”
Here are some of the heart healthy benefits of good quality, less processed or dark chocolate consumption according to research articles in scientific and medical journals.
- Journal of Nutrition: Dark chocolate added to a low-fat diet may support heart health by improving blood pressure and lowering cholesterol. Eating dark chocolate helps prevent inflammation, a process in the body that is a factor in heart disease.
- Archives of Internal Medicine: Consuming cocoa was associated with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of death in elderly men.
- Journal of Internal Medicine: The consumption of dark chocolate 2 or 3 times a week may increase the survival rate of persons following a first heart attack.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Eating dark chocolate helps lower systolic blood pressure (the top number in blood pressure.). Dark, but not white chocolate decreases blood pressure, and improves insulin sensitivity in healthy persons.
- The Journal of Hypertension: Dark chocolate reduces LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, lowering the risk of dangerous plaque from forming and building up in the arteries.
- John Hopkins, University of Wisconsin, and University of California: Similar to aspirin, chocolate helps prevent blood platelets from sticking together, allowing for better blood flow which lowers the risk of blood clots.
- St. Michael’s Hospital Study: Chocolate may decrease the risk of stroke.
Some persons should limit their consumption of chocolate. This includes individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or anxiety disorders.
Joe Smulevitz is a nutritional researcher and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at email@example.com