Though not classified as a health food, there’s mounting scientific evidence that dark chocolate may actually be good for you, in small doses. With Valentine’s Day a recent memory, it seems chocolate and its properties might be worth pursuing long after last night’s molten lava cake and chocolate-dipped strawberries have been eaten.
Dark chocolate with a cocoa content greater than 65 percent contains the highest levels of healthy compounds, yet those levels decrease when pure chocolate is processed and sugar, milk, and butter are added. They also contain a potent blend of polyphenols and flavanols-organic ingredients found in plants. They have anti-inflammatory properties and can lower the presence of free-radicals in the body, which may decrease arterial damage.
Studies also show that patients with high blood levels of flavonoids, have a corresponding and lower risk of heart disease, lung cancer, prostate cancer, asthma, and Type II Diabetes. Additionally, flavanols can:
- Improve blood vessel function and increase blood flow
- Increase blood flow to the brain, which may improve memory
- Reduce the formation of blood clots
- Lower blood pressure in those with mild hypertension
But not all chocolates are equal. Researchers at the University of California, Davis compared the effects high-flavanol Dove Dark chocolate with the same amount of low-flavanol dark chocolate on 10 healthy people. The Dove had cardio-protective benefits and reduced LDL oxidation, while raising antioxidant levels and HDL blood concentrations. Dark chocolate may contain up to four times more flavonoids than milk chocolate; while white chocolate has none. Dove Dark Chocolate contains a proprietary and specially-processed cocoa, which the company has patented. For more information, visit www.cocoavia.com/mars-and-cocoa-flavanols/.
Denise Edwards a pediatrician at the University of South Florida and the Director of the Healthy Weight Clinic, recommends only a small amount of chocolate - about one ounce. She also encourages a diet balanced in color, food variety and nutrients, offering that berries, oranges, apples, broccoli, and dark leafy vegetables offer anti-oxidant properties without the high sugar and fat content.
“Eating foods that are high sugar and high fat do release a chemical reaction that is pleasurable and gives you energy, but it is short-lived,” she said.
Edwards prefers a more balanced approach to eating rather than relying on one food source. She also encourages consumption of fewer processed foods. Familiar with the history of chocolate, she noted that natural foods - including cocoa - were plentiful back when it was discovered.
”While we have gained convenience with processed foods, we lost some nutrients,” she said.
Cocoa’s rich history dates back some 2,000 years and across many cultures. The cacao tree has seed pods that are processed into chocolate. But Mayans mixed ground cacao (cocoa) seeds with spices and corn to make a potent drink believed to be a health elixir that also enhanced fertility. The Aztecs believed eating the fruit of the tree would increase wisdom and power and Montezuma II is rumored to have consumed up to 10 cups daily. Christopher Columbus brought the cacao bean to Europe and in 1519; Hernan Cortes exported chocolate beans to Spain describing it as "the divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.” He also said, “a cup of this precious drink permits man to walk for a whole day without food."
Sugar and spices were added to flavor the drink for Europeans and stories of its aphrodisiac qualities caught on. Even Casanova was rumored to drink chocolate before his sexual endeavors. In 2008, a study conducted by Hershey Corporation showed levels of resveratrol in found in cocoa and chocolate products was second only to red wine.
But as with all foods, Edwards cautioned avoiding an all or nothing approach.
“Chocolate is sentimental and we associate it with treats or romance,” she said, “but it’s not a perfect food.”
That’s sage advice, but an ounce of dark chocolate may offer food for thought.
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Correction: This story has been updated from its original version. Study information on Dove Chocolate can be found online at www.cocoavia.com/mars-and-cocoa-flavanols/ , according to a PR representative from the Mars company.