What better time of year to treat your Valentine (and yourself!) to the ultimate gift that’s both from and for the heart—dark chocolate. Romance and indulgence aside, the heart-healthy benefits of dark chocolate may be enjoyed all year long.
Dark defined. Chocolate is made from beans harvested from the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao. The ancient Mayans first discovered chocolate’s health potential, as they ground the beans into a bitter brew that they used as traditional medicine for heart ailments, depression and other conditions.
Today, chocolate manufacturers remove cocoa beans from their pod, and ferment, dry, roast and grind them into cocoa liquor. The beans may be further processed into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla are then combined to make chocolate. Dark chocolate contains higher amounts of cocoa solids and smaller amounts of sugar compared to milk chocolate, thus it results in a rich, deep flavor.
The high level of flavonols, the main type of antioxidant flavonoid (flavonoids are categorized according to chemical structure) in cocoa and chocolate, is what separates dark chocolate from other varieties, which have much lower levels. In addition to health-protective antioxidant qualities, the flavonols in cocoa and dark chocolate may help you fend off heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and stroke.
Hearty benefits. Dark chocolate has a protective effect against cardiovascular disease. It lowers blood pres-sure and cholesterol, and may protect the heart by improving endothelium (cells that line the heart and blood vessels) function and insulin resistance, a predictor of diabetes, according to a November 2013 study in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition Metabolic Care.
Food for thought. Cocoa flavonols are absorbed into, and accumulate in, the areas of the brain involved in learning and memory. According to a study in a 2013 Neuroscience and Biobehavior Reviews, long-term flavonol consumption may have protective effects against cognitive decline, including dementia and stroke. And, in addition to the pleasure of enjoying a rich square of dark chocolate, it also may improve mood, with the potential to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, says a study in a 2013 Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Be choosy. When shopping for the finest heart-shaped confection, go as dark as your palate allows for the biggest boost of flavonoids and health benefits. Most studies use 70 percent or higher cocoa content. Ingredients should include cocoa butter (but not other fats such as palm or coconut oils), sugar and vanilla, and not much else.
Note that just one ounce of 70–85 percent dark chocolate has 168 calories and 12 grams of fat, so it’s best to keep portions petite—about one ounce. So, go ahead and share a gift of heart-shaped dark chocolate this Valentine’s Day. Pair it with other flavonoid-rich treats, like red wine (in moderation) and a handful of almonds to keep in the spirit of this heart-friendly holiday.