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Gift of chocolate will do the heart good

by Doris Penner

            If you want to reach your sweetheart’s heart this Valentine’s Day, give a gift of chocolate—make that dark chocolate. The latest scientific research suggests that chocolate has unique health benefits for the heart that are seriously jeopardizing its reputation as pure indulgence. Before you rush out to polish off a box of chocolates or go wild over chocolate cheesecake you spotted in the bakery window, you need to know chocolate is not considered a “health food” and the good it may do must be put in context. It can, however, have a place in a wholesome diet which is cause for celebration.

            Chocolate in its various forms comes from the cacao tree which flourishes in hot rainy climates. Its pods are picked when ripe and put through a series of processing steps to produce cocoa powder, unsweetened chocolate and milk chocolate.

            The cocoa pod is rich in several antioxidants, most notably flavonoids which are thought to assist in battling high blood pressure, arterial plaque, heart disease and stroke. It is easy to see chocolate is in good company when you realize other foods high in this antioxidant are strawberries, grapefruit, bran and green tea.

Prevent platelets from clumping

            It is thought that flavonoids are effective in preventing platelets in the blood from clumping together which keeps blood vessels open. This concept has been tested in various studies—on willing subjects I’m sure, told to consume a certain amount of chocolate daily for a period of time. Blood samples clearly indicate that consumption of chocolate is associated with a number of positive results relating to cardiovascular health.

            It should be noted that dark chocolate has the most flavonoids—in fact, almost four times as much as does milk chocolate (white chocolate has none). Whether or not dark chocolate retains its original antioxidant qualities depends on the amount and type of processing. Look for chocolate that has at least 70 percent or more cocoa product (more is better). Make sure to read the label of chocolate you purchase—if sugar is near the top on the list of ingredients, the cocoa solids content will be low. Be aware that the addition of nuts, caramel and the like also lowers the cocoa content.

            In addition to preventing massing of platelets in the blood, flavonoids have shown to help reduce blood pressure by relaxing arteries to increase blood flow as well to raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol to help prevent oxidative damage to tissues. The presence of flavonoids thus helps prevent both heart attack and stroke. Any element that assists with arterial dilatation is good news for the brain which explains why dark chocolate has been shown to help improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment. This has implications for dealing with Alzheimer's disease.

Positive effect

            In light of the fact that studies show dark chocolate has a positive effect on cardiovascular health as well as improving brain function—and let's not forget how it makes the happiness quotient rise rather quickly on consumption—why not make it a member of one of the food groups? The truth remains that chocolate in the forms we consume it—bars, drinks and desserts—is high in fat and sugar, both of which have negative effects on health in excess as well as raising the calorie count. A high intake of foods containing chocolate could easily lead to weight gain which, in turn, would negate the positive effects it has on cardiovascular health and psychological well-being. While chocolate contains important minerals such as iron, magnesium and potassium, as well as several antioxidants, it is not a good or excellent source of these nutrients as fruits and vegetables are.

            The good news is that it doesn’t take a huge dose of chocolate to show a health benefit, so the answer for those who crave chocolate is to enjoy a square or two several times a week. So this Valentine’s Day, you don’t have to feel a smidgen of guilt in gifting your loved ones with dark chocolate. Just share it around the table so everyone gets a modest piece. It will do your hearts good.