Heart-Healthy Dark Chocolate
Saad Asrar, M.S. Food Science
A chocoholic are you? There’s no need to be guilt-ridden if you love dark chocolate—with no milk. The old adage, “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” seems to be true of dark chocolate as related to antioxidants. The darker the chocolate, the better it is health-wise. In fact, present dark chocolate to friends and family and you will, most likely, be doing them a favor.
Dark chocolate often contains a variety of ingredients from natural and artificial flavors to preservatives, textural based chemicals, and of most benefit, cocoa. Cocoa beans contain heart-healthy natural antioxidants called flavonoids which are also present in blueberries, raspberries, broccoli, cranberries, spinach, green tea and figs. Flavonoids are known to reduce blood pressure. Recent studies indicate flavonoids protect the heart from the effects of unstable oxygen compounds called free radicals that can damage blood vessels (1). Dark chocolate also inhibits platelet aggregation which could cause a heart attack or stroke. Cocoa flavonoids relax and dilate the blood vessels that inhibit an enzyme that causes inflammation. By dilating the blood vessels, flavonoids help keep the blood flowing to the heart. Flavonoids, and its subgroup catechins, are found in dark chocolate at four times the amount found in green tea (1). Dark chocolate contains 53.5 mg of catechins per 100 g of chocolate; milk chocolate contains 15.9 mg/100 g, and black tea contains 13.9 mg per 100 ml of tea, according to researchers (2). European dark chocolates are richer in cocoa phenols than their American cousins (4).
It is important, however, to be keenly mindful of the caloric intake. Moderation is key. One should consume low calorie foods such as fruits supplemented only occasionally by dark chocolate to get the heart benefits of the cocoa based antioxidants. But remember—don’t wash down dark chocolate with a glass of milk. European researchers found that eating milk chocolate did not raise antioxidant levels in the bloodstream (3). The same held true among patients who drank milk while eating dark chocolate. The results suggest that milk and other dairy products somehow reduce the body’s ability to absorb the protective compounds in chocolate (3).