Dark chocolate: It's sweet for your health
Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center will provide a guest post on healthy eating. This week, nutritionist Christine Dobmeier (pictured) weighs in on dark chocolate.
With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, chocolate candy is everywhere we look, in many shapes and forms (of course hearts!). While many of us think of chocolate as an unhealthy indulgence, research is showing that dark chocolate actually has many benefits. Chocolate’s healthy kick stems from its rich flavonol content. The health bonuses associated with dark chocolate and cocoa include enhanced blood flow, healthy cholesterol levels and in some studies, reduced blood pressure.
What is a flavonol? Though it sounds like some kind of wacky flavor, it is actually a type of flavonoid. A flavonoid is something that helps protect plants by repairing damage from environmental toxins. Flavonoids occur naturally in plant-based foods and offer certain health benefits when people consume them. There are more than 4,000 various flavonoid compounds, and flavonol is the specific one found in chocolate and cocoa.
When we think of antioxidants and flavonoids, foods that often come to mind include green tea, red wine and berries. The good news on cocoa and chocolate? Just two tablespoons of natural cocoa has more antioxidant properties than four cups of green tea, one cup of blueberries or six ounces of red wine. One cup of cranberries has 419 milligrams of flavonols, and only 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate has 517 milligrams. There isn’t an official recommended daily allowance for flavonols, but research indicates there are health benefits with intakes from approximately 150-200 milligrams a day.
Why dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate? Typically dark chocolate is less refined, which allows its flavonol content to be higher. Most commercial chocolate is more processed, which decreases this healthy benefit. The good news is many chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavonol content higher to promote the healthy side of chocolate. When choosing chocolate for your sweetheart, look for a dark chocolate, and still remember that portion size is important. The serving recommendation to get the heart healthy benefit of dark chocolate isn’t yet established, but it’s thought that an ounce of dark chocolate 2-3 times a week is a good goal.
While dark chocolate is more heart-healthy, try to limit chocolate in forms such as cake, where it may have much additional saturated and trans fats, as well as items with a lot of extra caramel or marshmallow fillings. Instead, look for basic, rich dark chocolate or ways to mix dark chocolate with a variety of other anti-oxidant rich foods. Consider dipping cranberries or blueberries in dark chocolate for a healthy but delicious treat. Cocoa dusted almonds also make an excellent snack.
Enjoy a healthy dose of dark chocolate for Valentine’s Day, as well as to celebrate American Heart Month in February.