Ask the Dietitian: Chocolate

Question: Is it true Belgian chocolate is good for your heart health? Tell me more!

Answer: Recent evidence suggests that chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is rich in substances that may actually help fend off heart disease. These substances are known as flavonoids and are not limited to chocolate; flavonoids are also present in onions, grapes, red wine and tea, among other plant-derived foods. It appears that flavonoids have powerful antioxidant effects.

A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this past fall compared a traditional American diet to the same diet rich in flavonoids from chocolate (consuming a daily cocoa powder beverage and dark chocolate). What they found was that the group supplemented with the chocolate products had modest reductions in the oxidation of the “bad” cholesterol, LDL compared to the control diet. This means the LDL-cholesterol was less apt to form a plaque on the arterial wall. Additional preliminary research on chocolate shows it can also favourably affect blood clotting and the relaxation of blood vessels.

Will any chocolate do? Unfortunately no. Many chocolate products, such as cocoa powder and chocolate syrup, are typically processed with alkali, removing most of these beneficial flavonoids in the process. And milk chocolate has fewer of these beneficial chemicals than does dark chocolate.

So what are you to do? Until further research is conducted, focus on foods proven to help enhance heart health and prevent disease – fruits, vegetables and whole grains for example. But, allow yourself to enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate or chocolate product once in awhile. Many manufacturers make great bite-sized pieces of dark chocolate that can help fulfill that chocolate craving. Nonfat chocolate puddings or hot chocolate mixes are another great option. Remember, most chocolate products (candy bars, confections, cocoa powder, chocolate syrups) are traditionally high in calories and total fat, so incorporate these foods into your diet with discretion.

One day we may find we can “have our cake and eat it too”. Until then, moderation is still key.

Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled

It is no secret that fruits, vegetables and grains convey health benefits – we’ve been told that for years. But did you know that chocolate could result in health benefits, more specifically heart-health benefits ?
Have you had your flavonoids today?

While not a question normally asked at a social gathering, flavonoids have become quite a hot topic in the media and in scientific journals.

What are flavonoids?

Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods recognized as exuding certain health benefits.

Flavonoids are found in a wide array of foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine. There are more than 4,000 flavonoid compounds; flavonoids are a subgroup of a large class called polyphenols.

Flavonoids provide important protective benefits to plants, such as in repairing damage and shielding from environmental toxins. When we consume plant-based foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power. Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals, formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing or environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage ensues, leading to increases in LDL-cholesterol oxidation and plaque formation on arterial walls.

In addition to their antioxidant capabilities, flavonoids also:

  • Are thought to help reduce platelet activation
  • May affect the relaxation capabilities of blood vessels
  • May positively affect the balance of certain hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids, which are thought to play a role in cardiovascular health.

Forms of Chocolate

Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, let’s look at what forms of chocolate would be ideal over others:

  • When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce its naturally pungent taste. Flavonoids (polyphenols) provide this pungent taste. The more chocolate is processed (such as fermentation, alkalizing, roasting), the more flavonoids are lost. Most commercial chocolates fit this category.
  • Dark chocolate appears to retain the highest level of flavonoids. So your best bet is to choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
  • Some chocolate manufacturers are studying ways to retain the highest level of flavonoids while still providing acceptable taste. Stay tuned for more information in this area.

What about all of the fat in chocolate?

You may be surprised to find out that chocolate isn’t as bad as once perceived. The fat in chocolate, from cocoa butter, is comprised of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. Saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL-cholesterol and risk for heart disease.

Research indicates that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Palmitic acid on the other hand, does affect cholesterol levels but only comprises one-third of the fat calories in chocolate.

This great news does not give us a license to consume as much dark chocolate as we’d like.

First, be cautious as to the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option. What wreaks havoc on most chocolate products are the fat and calories that accompany other ingredients.

Second, there is currently no established serving size of chocolate to reap these cardiovascular benefits. However, what we do know is you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate once in awhile.

More research in this area is needed to determine just how much chocolate we chocolate-lovers can eat in order to acquire cardioprotective benefits. Until that time, enjoy chocolate in moderate portions a few times per week. Don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries.