Chocolate is heart healthy because of its content of cocoa antioxidant polyphenol compounds called flavonoids. Chocolate helps lower the risk for heart attacks, strokes, and even type 2 diabetes. Some of the ingredients in chocolate help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, increase blood flow to the brain, improve blood sugar absorption and insulin sensitivity, discourage blood clots, and increase nitric oxide levels. Nitric oxide helps relax and dilate arteries and keep them flexible, lowering blood pressure slightly in hypertensive and prehypertensive individuals. Even modest reductions in blood pressure (two to three points on both systolic and diastolic pressure scales) significantly lower coronary artery disease and stroke mortality.
Dark chocolate has a much higher concentration of flavonoids than milk chocolate, whereas white chocolate has none. Flavonoids enhance activity of special proteins called sterol regulatory element-binding proteins (SREBPs), which are involved in cholesterol metabolism. Activated SREBPs bind to genes on DNA that increase a protein called apolipoprotein A1 in the liver, which is the major protein component of the “good” HDL cholesterol. Flavonoids also decrease liver production of another protein, apolipoprotein B, which is the major protein component of the “bad” LDL cholesterol, and increase activity of LDL receptors that induce more cholesterol removal from the bloodstream. Flavonoids may also fight atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) in the arteries by decreasing the amount of oxidized LDL cholesterol, a major contributor to atherosclerosis.
Dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content provides the healthiest compounds. The darker the chocolate, the less room for sugar. Milk chocolate contains about twice as much sugar as the darkest chocolate. And although chocolate has saturated fat, it is primarily stearic acid, which has a neutral effect on cholesterol. Unfortunately, the chocolate Americans love most is loaded with sugar, fat, and calories. Do not consume chocolate made with palm, coconut, hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated oils, and avoid chewy, caramel, marshmallow, or cream-covered chocolates. High-quality dark chocolate is not a food to be eaten liberally, but it’s a health food to be enjoyed in moderation. Keep in mind that chocolate is calorie dense. Eat too much of any type of chocolate, and you will gain weight. Overweightness and obesity are major health problems, with corresponding negative effects on morbidity and mortality. As little as .25 ounce of daily dark chocolate has been shown to provide health benefits. The equivalent of one (26 calories, .6 ounce) to two daily dark-chocolate Hershey’s Kisses is all that is needed. Unsweetened cocoa powder with skim or fat-free milk and a touch of sweetener is an even better choice. Chocolate should be viewed as a treat—not a health food. Fruits and vegetables are still better sources of flavonoids.