Chocolate: Does a Chocolate A Day Keep the Cardiologist Away?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 11:12am

By Rose Giordano

Once considered the "food of the gods" by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations in South America, chocolate has been a favorite on dessert menus in the United States for some time. Interestingly, for the last 20 years cocoa and chocolate have been gaining attention for their heart health benefits. However, this isn't anything new. Researchers at the University of California, Davis have uncovered letters dating back as early as 16th century describing the medicinal benefits of chocolate. 1

Is chocolate good for you?

Cocoa, which makes up chocolate, is a rich source of a class of compounds known as flavonoids. Numerous research studies have implicated these compounds (which can be found in foods such as tea, wine, chocolate and some fruits and vegetables) in the reduction of the risk for heart disease.

Scientists have shown that cocoa flavonoids may act as antioxidants by reducing the "bad" LDL cholesterol from damaging our blood vessels 2,3 and may slightly increase "good" HDL cholesterol 4. Further research indicates that the cocoa flavonoids also help in reducing blood pressure 5 and the incidence of blood clots 6.

You could get also a dose of flavonoids from other food sources, such as grape seed extract, apples, and berries. Researchers say most consumers don't realize that chocolate is derived from plants, as are fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, it seems to have a very high concentration of flavonoids. The perfect excuse to enjoy it!

Is chocolate all the same?

Steer clear of chocolate coated with ingredients such as chewy caramel or marshmallow. The extra fat and calories added will cancel out the previously mentioned benefits. Choose high quality semisweet dark chocolate that contains more natural cocoa with at least a 70% cocoa content. It will therefore have a higher content of flavonoids than milk chocolate, which contains less cocoa. Steer clear of chocolate confections and treats made with hydrogenated fats or refined flour, neither of which promotes health. Additionally, white chocolate contains little to no cocoa and for that reason is not a good source of flavonoids.

How much chocolate should you eat?

There is currently no established serving of chocolate to reap the touted cardiovascular benefits. However, enjoying a small piece of dark chocolate once in awhile will certainly do the trick.

While a little dark chocolate is good, more is not necessarily better. Chocolate is still high in calories and fat. If you choose to eat more chocolate, remember to cut calories somewhere else. Remember that a balanced diet and plenty of exercise still remains the key to heart health.

For further information on eating chocolate and a healthy heart see the following article from TheDietChannel: Chocolate: Why Is It Good For Your Heart?

1 Grivetti, LE Cultural Aspects of Nutrition: The Integration of Art and Science; The Oxford Brooks University Lectures (2003).

2 Steinberg, D; Parthasarathy, S; Carew, TE; Khoo, JC; Witzum, JL. New England Journal of Medicine. 1989, Volume 320 Issue 14, pages 915-924.

3 Kondo K; Hirano R; Matsumoto A; Igarashi O; Itakura H. Lancet 1996, Volume 348, pages 1514.

4 Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, Rissanen TH, Virtanen JK, Kaikkonen J, Nyyssonen K, Salonen JT Free Radical Biology and Medicine 2004 Volume 37 Issue 9, pages 1351-1359.

5 Karim M, McCormick K, Kappagoda TC. Journal of Nutrition 2000; Volume 130, Issue 8 pages 2105S-2108S.

6 Rein D, Paglieroni TG, Wun T, Pearson DA, Schmitz HH, Gosselin R, Keen CL. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000;Volume 72 Volume 1, pages 30-35.