It’s Simple—Eat Chocolate

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on March 15, 2008 · 0 comments

How to lower blood pressure and protect against heart disease and diabetes?

Can a chocolate bar truly do all that? It sure is tempting to believe. Let’s start by giving you an end point. If you have a cup of cocoa for breakfast, green tea for lunch, and a glass of red wine for dinner you’ve given yourself a nutrition advantage for the day. Add in an array of fruits and vegetables and a small piece of rich dark chocolate, and you qualify for membership in the “healthy eaters club.” Why?

All these food are rich in antioxidants, health-promoting substances that scavenge up nasty free radicals and protect your body from harm. Plant-based foods are rich in the antioxidant group called flavonoids. There are over 4,000 flavonoid compounds and cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine are particularly rich sources.

Flavonoids give chocolate its pungent taste, but commercial chocolates vary widely in flavonoid content. The more chocolate is processed, the more flavonoids are lost. Chocolate with a high cocoa content—like dark chocolate and cocoa powder—have the most. Milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate syrup, and chocolate-containing foods, like cake, have the least.

Many brands of dark chocolate proudly display the percentage of cacao on the label. That is the bar’s actual content from the cacao bean. It is the sum of cocoa butter and cocao solids. The rest of the bar is almost entirely sugar plus a few minor ingredients. If a bar is 57% cacao it will have approximately 43% sugar. A typical milk chocolate bar has about 10% cacao, but a serious dark chocolate, varietal brand might be closer to 85%. The higher the percentage of cacao the more pungent and bitter the chocolate taste and the higher the flavonoid content.

Fruits and vegetables, the other group of flavoniod-rich foods, are virtually fat-free, as is cocoa powder. An ounce and a half of chocolate, the typical candy bar size, can have 8 or more grams of fat. That’s why relying on chocolate as a major source of flavonoids has a downside—calories add up quickly. The good news is that the type of fat found in chocolate is not all bad.

Cocoa butter is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic acid and palmitic acid, both of which are saturated vegetable fats. Stearic acid, even though it is a saturated fat, has a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Some studies have also shown that stearic acid may contain anti-clotting properties which could be protective against blood clots. Plamitic acid does affect cholesterol, but it only makes up one-third of the total fat in chocolate.

How does all this relate to chocolate lowering blood pressure? This gets a little complicated. Researchers believe that the flavonoids in chocolate help produce more nitric oxide, a substance that allows blood vessels to dilate, which in turn helps to lower blood pressure.

Appreciate also that the reduction in blood pressure in the reported study was minor, there were only 22 older subjects studied, and none of them had serious high blood pressure. It shows a positive trend. But as the researchers themselves said, “our results may be valid for only individuals who are older and mildly hypertensive, but otherwise healthy.” But the study did show that it didn’t take much chocolate daily to get the small reduction in blood pressure.

No single food can promise immunity from disease and at this point there is no established daily serving size of chocolate that will guarantee health benefits. So you don’t have license to eat chocolate to abandon, but cup of hot cocoa or a small amount of dark chocolate daily is a dietary modification most of us would find acceptable and easy to adhere to, and it may prove helpful.

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