Valentine’s Day is just three short days away. In addition to flowers and cards containing sentimental messages, chocolate confections top the list of most popular Valentine’s Day gifts.
According to the National Confectioner’s Association, about $1 billion dollars is spent on candy during the time leading up to Valentine’s Day with 75 percent of sales consisting of chocolate. With a rich, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness, it is no surprise that chocolate is such a popular gift. Can a food that tastes as good as chocolate also be good for you?
According to the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, chocolate can indeed be advantageous for health and wellness. Upon review of more than 13 human clinical studies assessing the effects of chocolate on cardiovascular health, nutrition and health experts found moderate evidence to suggest “Modest consumption of dark chocolate or cocoa is associated with health benefits in the form of reduced cardiovascular disease risk.” Indicators of cardiovascular health that improved during the research studies included blood pressure, arterial function and cholesterol oxidation.
Choc-a-holics may be rejoicing at this positive news; however, the reduction in cardiovascular disease risk is not a green light to consume limitless amounts of chocolate. In most research studies, beneficial health effects were achieved with regular consumption of one ounce or less of dark chocolate. Consuming excess amounts of chocolate could outweigh potential health benefits as chocolate is calorically dense.
A typical 1.5 ounce dark chocolate bar (50-60 percent cocoa) contains 200 calories, 13 grams total fat, 8 grams saturated fat and 5 teaspoons of added sugar. The average adult needs only 1,800-2,400 calories, 60-80 grams of fat and no more than six teaspoons of added sugar in a day.
Reaping the most health benefits from chocolate also involves choosing chocolate that contains the highest levels of flavanols and other health-promoting, bioactive compounds. Dark chocolate has almost 10 times more flavanols than milk chocolate. The sugar and milk that are incorporated into milk chocolate to achieve a smooth, creamy texture and sweeter taste result in less total cocoa solids and flavanols in the final product.
When choosing a cocoa powder that is higher in bioactive compounds, opt for natural cocoa powder. The flavanol content of natural cocoa powder is more than two times greater than that of Dutch cocoa. The “Dutching” process is used to reduce acidity and increase the solubility of cocoa powder for use in baking and beverage preparation.
Although Dutch cocoa is an excellent choice for use in cooking, the alkali compound used to “Dutch” the cocoa destroys more than one half of the flavanols in natural cocoa powder. Therefore, Dutch cocoa is one of the last options to choose when you want to obtain the most health benefits. The best way to determine if a product contains Dutch cocoa is to read the ingredient list on the back of the package. The terms “alkalized cocoa” and “cocoa treated with alkali” both indicate that the cocoa has been “Dutched.”
This Valentine’s Day, whether you receive a heart-shaped box of chocolates or a rich, velvety Dutch chocolate bar, remember to consume the chocolate in moderation by incorporating it into a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Your heart will thank you!
Rebecca Creasy is the Houston County Extension agent for food and nutrition and family and consumer sciences. Contact her at 478-987-2028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.