With Valentine’s Day just around the corner and it being American Heart Month, we certainly have both chocolate and hearts on the brain. Chocolate and hearts have even more in common in the form of health benefits. Chocolate may seem like an odd choice for something “healthy”. However, in moderation, chocolate can actually benefit your heart health and more. Those benefits are even higher when we eat dark chocolate. We’re spilling the cocoa beans on everything you need to know!
History of Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate originated sometime around 2000 B.C from the Mayans in Central America. They enjoyed their chocolate as a bitter fermented beverage paired with spices or wine. Typically they would drink it for ceremonial or medicinal purposes. During this time, dark chocolate was the only type of chocolate available since it is the form of chocolate closest to its original state. It isn’t until chocolate makes its way to Europe when things like honey or cane sugar are added to sweeten it and lessen the bitterness. Then, in 1689, milk becomes an addition to traditional chocolate drinks in Jamaica, making the first-ever milk chocolate. Chocolatiers began to emerge in the 19th century, and none too soon! With them, the creativity and versatility of chocolate come a long way. Subsequently, the 21st century brought about plentiful research on the benefits.
The readily available chocolate products we’ve come to know and love is the final result of a long and somewhat tedious process. Chocolate begins as a large cacao pod. These oval-shaped pods are typically 6-10 inches long and 3.5 inches wide. Inside there are approximately 20-60 seeds or “beans” situated within a white pulpy substance. The next step is to remove the beans from the pod. Afterward, it is time for fermenting, drying and roasting the beans. Fermentation can take 6-10 days, and drying can take 5-10 days. Once the beans are dry, sorting occurs to remove those that are not-so-great. The remaining beans can then be roasted anywhere from 10-35 minutes.
After roasting, the shells are removed, and we are left with the cocoa nibs. Nibs are ground into a liquid called liquor and separated from the fatty portion, the cocoa butter. The liquor is further refined to leave us with the cocoa solids that we are most familiar with.
Chocolate for Heart Health?
Earlier chocolate studies found a benefit for blood pressure and vessels. Here, doctors were specifically looking for the effects in coronary arteries. Reviewing six studies covering 336,289 participants over an average of nine years of follow-up, those eating chocolate more than once a week were 8 percent less likely to develop coronary artery disease than those eating chocolate less often.
“Chocolate contains flavonoids, methylxanthines, polyphenols, and stearic acid,” doctors said, all of which may reduce inflammation and increase good cholesterol. Moderate amounts appear to be protective, and people — particularly diabetics — should also consider the calories, fat, and sugar in commercial products.
To get the most benefit, a piece of chocolate high in cocoa solid content but low in sugar and milkfat is what you want. Dark chocolate fits the bill, with most containing 60-70% cocoa solids. Some do contain cocoa butter and some sugar, but much less than their milk chocolate counterparts. Most dark chocolate is high in flavonoids (2-3 times more than milk chocolate). Particularly it is high in flavanols, which doctors associate with a lower heart disease risk. Flavanols support nitric oxide production in the inner cell lining of blood vessels. Nitric oxide helps to relax the blood vessels and improve blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure. Lastly, studies suggest that an intake of 6 grams of dark chocolate daily may reduce heart disease risk.
Additional Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
The flavanols that are so helpful to heart health also work as antioxidants. These assist in limiting oxidative stress, which can damage cells, contributing to aging. It may also play a role in developing a range of health conditions, including diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. To add to the heart-healthy flavonols, dark chocolate is also rich in the nutrients iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus.
References: Harvard School of Public Health – The Nutrition Source: Dark Chocolate
European Journal of Preventative Cardiology; July 2020