Chocolate tastes great, but new research shows certain kinds may be heart-healthy, as well.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Chocolate is seemingly everywhere and the temptation to indulgeis high. After all, when a craving hits, who can resist thatmelt-in-your-mouth richness and smooth, creamy texture of a goodpiece of chocolate? Whether you need a mood boost, have somethingto celebrate, or are simply saying, "I love you," a box ofchocolates is just right. Now, new studies suggest that the healthbenefits of chocolate might make it more than just a satisfyingtreat. Researchers have isolated powerful disease-fightingsubstances in chocolate, with some early studies showing thatcertain kinds of chocolate may help lower blood pressure and staveoff heart disease. Before you call chocolate a health food,however, learn more about this research and what it may mean foryour sweet tooth.

Sweet Medicine
Chocolate comes from the cacao (or cocoa) bean, and since theSpanish explorer Hernando Cortés penned a letter about thefrothy cacao beverages of the New World to the emperor of Spain in1520, chocolate has had a place in our diet. It was first used asmedicine to treat everything from tuberculosis to gout to lowvirility, but by the end of the 18th century, the plant dubbedTheobroma cacao, or "food of the gods," began creeping into ourculinary vernacular. Eaten in slabs, sorbets, desserts, and evensoups and pastas, chocolate was so common by World War I that itwas used as a ration for the troops. Today chocolate is aningredient in cooking worldwide, from the savory sauces and molesof Mexico to the sweet, smooth French chocolate éclair.

Yet, the pendulum could be swinging back. With some intriguinghealth news now emerging about chocolate, this tasty treat may onceagain be elevated to medicinal status. It started when scientistsbegan to wonder about the historical uses of chocolate as medicine."It's not so unusual when you consider the beans of the cocoa plantare extremely rich in flavonoids," says Carl Keen, Ph.D., anutrition professor at the University of California at Davis whohas done extensive research on chocolate. Flavonoids are potentplant antioxidants, and for years scientists have said thatantioxidants can exert a positive influence on health byneutralizing damaging free radicals, substances believed to advanceaging and promote disease. Many fruits, vegetables, red wine, andteas also contain flavonoids. Now researchers are zeroing in onflavonoids in chocolate and identifying a different subclass:flavonols. It's these compounds that appear to pack the most healthbenefits.

One German study, for example, found that eating dark chocolatehigh in flavonoids may reduce blood pressure. In the same study,however, flavonoid-free white chocolate yielded no change in bloodpressure. As part of the study protocol, 13 volunteers with highblood pressure munched on a custom-made, 3.5-ounce dark chocolatebar for two weeks and then switched to eating the same amount ofwhite chocolate over the next two weeks. During the dark chocolatephase, systolic blood pressure (the maximum pressure created whenthe heart muscle contracts) dropped an average of five points.Diastolic pressure, the pressure in the arteries when the heartmuscle relaxes between beats, dropped about two points. (Areduction in both is optimal for those with high bloodpressure.)

However, there is one stumbling block in the case for the healthbenefits of chocolate: Not all of them are created equal when itcomes to flavonoid content. Most reports, like the German studymentioned above, suggest dark chocolate may harbor the highestamounts of these compounds. But some experts say that chocolate'sflavonoid content has nothing to do with color and everything to dowith how it's processed. two rules of thumb when looking forchocolate rich in flavonoids: First, dark chocolate in general hastwo to three times the amount of flavonoids found in milkchocolate. If you're looking for the highest amount of flavonoids,it's best to choose a brand that has a high cocoa content, 70percent or greater. On that list are gourmet chocolates such asLindt, El Rey, Scharffen Berger, Lake Champlain, and Ghirardelli.As for other brands of chocolate with lower cocoa contents, it'shard to predict the health benefits they may deliver. And, moreimportantly, any benefits chocolate may provide need to be weighedagainst its nutritional downside-mainly, its high fat content.

Fat Facts
If you look strictly at the numbers, a 1.5-ounce bar ofchocolate has around 235 calories and between 13 and 14 grams offat, six to nine grams of it the artery-clogging, saturated kind.That's a lot of calories and fat for such a small amount ofchocolate. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels, and highcholesterol levels can clog arteries. However, some of thesaturated fat in chocolate is in the form of stearic acid, whichdoesn't raise cholesterol. Stearic acid is in cocoa butter, whichis the main fat in chocolate. The liver converts stearic acid tooleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which isn't damaging to theheart. Some researchers argue, however, that, regardless of stearicacid, chocolate is still a high-fat, high-calorie food. Smallamounts can be worked into a healthy diet, but large quantitiesaren't a recipe for good health, particularly when you consider howmany Americans are overweight, says Penn State Universitynutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D. She suggests a leaner wayto get that chocolate fix: Opt for cocoa, the powder formed whencocoa beans are ground and stripped of cocoa butter.

Trick or Treat?
As comforting as it is to think your next chocolate fix maybe good for you, think twice. The reason is simple: "Eating anyfood in excess of caloric needs, including chocolate, will causeweight gain," Kris-Etherton says.

In the meantime, Richard Mattes, Ph.D., a professor of nutritionat Purdue University, says there's nothing wrong with enjoying thecomfort food status of chocolate in moderate amounts. "It's howoften and how much that's the issue," he says. Adds Kris-Etherton:"Instead, incorporate it into an already healthy diet thatmeets-doesn't exceed-energy needs." Until there are more controlledclinical trials examining the health benefits of chocolate, and themagnitude of those effects, and until flavonoid-rich chocolatesbecome more common, it may be wise to dip into that bucket oftrick-or-treat chocolate with discretion.

Maureen Callahan, a chocolate lover, is a frequent contributorto Cooking Light.