Chocolate’s dark side shows its good side for heart-health benefits


TEXARKANA, Ark. — Americans are expected to show their love by spending some $17.3 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, but the heart-smartest money may be those gifts that include dark chocolate.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average person will shell out $133.91 on candy, cards, gifts dinner and other outward shows of affection, up slightly from last year’s $130.97.

Now, while money can’t buy you love, a gift of dark chocolate may buy you a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, says Carla Haley-Hadley, Miller County extension agent with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“If you are a chocolate lover, then Valentine’s Day is a day you probably love,” she said.

And there can be great news in those boxes and bags of heavenly goodness.

“Researchers have found that the main flavonoids found in cocoa are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease,” Hadley said.

Flavonoids are a subgroup of polyphenols, and within the flavonoid chemical hierarchy the flavan-3-ols (flavanols) are particularly high in dark chocolate and cocoa. Cocoa contains the same nutrients found in other plant foods, including minerals and specific antioxidants that help ward off diseases such as heart disease.

Antioxidants are important to our overall health because they help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals. We consider free radicals the “bad guys.” They are the things we want to reduce in our body that cause plague formation on arterial walls and leads to increases in LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels.

“However, you cannot eat the entire box or bag of dark chocolate and claim it’s for your health,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way. Potential health benefits need to be balanced with caloric intake.”

Dark chocolates seem to have the highest level of flavonoids, because they have gone through few processing steps. On the other hand, milk chocolate has been processed many times and therefore many of the flavonoids are missing.

As with all foods, we still should consume chocolate in small amounts and balance it with healthy foods rich in vitamins and minerals, including fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

For more information about healthy eating, contact your county extension office or visit www.uaex.edu.