Oh, Go Ahead... Enjoy Chocolate This Valentine's Day!
February 14, 2011 - Elissa Goodman
Chocolate was once considered a wicked, guilty pleasure - remember "Death by Chocolate"? But today, chocolate - particularly the darkest types with sky-high cocoa percentages - is beginning to seem more like a health food (high flavanol cocao on aisle 3!). Eating a little bit of chocolate a few times a week can be not only good for the heart but your soul too. The trick is to make the most of that little bit of chocolate, while dialing down the fatty, sugary ingredients chocolate so often it keeps company with.
A recent Harvard study reported that over 31,000 middle-age Swedish women who consumed one or two ounces of chocolate a week had a 32 percent lower risk of heart failure than women who ate no chocolate. Similar studies have shown people who eat moderate amounts of chocolate have lower incidence of high blood pressure, hardened arteries and even strokes.
Researchers found that the flavanols found in chocolate help activate enzymes that release nitric-oxide, a substance that helps widen and relax blood vessels. That allows blood to flow through the vessels more freely, reducing blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also involved in thinning blood and reducing it's tendency to clot, lowering the risk of stroke.
Some of the key flavanols in cocoa, catechins and epicatechins (also found in red wine and green tea) are known to have heart-healthy, antioxidant effects, such as helping to prevent LDL cholesterol from converting to amore legal, oxidized form.
Here's my advice when it comes to consuming chocolate. Eat the highest quality chocolate. I like chocolate with a high percentage of cacao (cocoa solids), usually 70 percent. There's a lot of flavor in dark chocolate, so often you can use less. That trims significant calories, since most types of chocolate are about 150 calories per ounce.
I also use unsweetened cocoa powder, which is nearly fat-free, has just 12 calories a tablespoon and is packed with flavor. Cocoa powder, by the way, is the dried solids that remain when roasted shelled cacao beans are ground to a paste and separated from their fatty components, called "cocoa butter."
I recommend the complex, rich flavors of well-made natural cocoas rather than so-called "Dutch-process" versions, which are treated with alkali to reduce bitterness. So how can you tell which one is the best?
Aroma, in particular, is very telling-if cocoa smells rich and chocolaty, it will probably taste that way. Don't be fooled by color. A dark cocoa might lead you to think it's more chocolaty, but Dutch-process cocoa is dark and it is less chocolaty.
Taste, of course, is the final word - but if the idea of tasting a bit of dry unsweetened cocoa turns you off, make a syrup of cocoa, water and a little sugar (not too much: use agave if you've got it!) and compare it with other brands.
Any positive effects of regular chocolate eating have to be tempered with the reality that it packs plenty of sugar, fatty calories. All those extra calories can quickly pile on extra pounds, easily undoing any good these flavanols might do. Bottom line: it's still better to keep on thinking of chocolate as a treat, not a treatment.
Scharffen Berger cocoa powder and chocolate is my favorite brand, but there are so many on the market I encourage you to taste and compare. As for chocolate bars and other treats, try "Endangered Species", found at Whole Foods and most health food stores. Endangered Species brand chocolate uses beet sugar instead of cane sugar which absorbs into the blood stream slower and is more natural. "Endangered Species" also ensures ethical and fair trade with cocoa farmers as well as 10% of their net profits go towards habitat conservation and saving endangered species.
Elissa Goodman is an LA based Integrative Nutritionist. For more, visit her website.
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