In the past I've spoken to the medicinal properties of dark chocolate, as well as its life extension and overall health benefits. Well, more recently, we've received some additional scientific data on the cardio-protective aspects of chocolates and cocoas.
As early as 2000, Internal Medicine News featured three separate studies—all of which concluded that dark chocolate and cocoa might actually be good for your heart. The studies were small, but placebo-controlled and double-blinded, so the data is meaningful even though the sample size is limited. (Maybe they just had trouble finding enough folks willing to share their "choc-a-lot" habits!? )
The researchers made a determination that certainly raises my eyebrows: They found that dark chocolate has a positive impact on platelet activity similar to a baby aspirin! In addition, they identified that dark chocolate has a strong antioxidant effect, is "endothelial cell friendly," and causes relaxation of the inner lining of blood vessels. Who'd have ever guessed it? No wonder we give chocolate hearts to those we love for Valentine's Day.
All kidding aside, there is something in dark chocolate that promotes the formation of nitric oxide and improves blood circulation in your blood vessels. But what is it in chocolate that's so medicinal?
Dark chocolate contains compounds called "procyanidins" that have potent metabolic effects. Research performed at the University of California demonstrated that the polyphenol activity of dark chocolate is similar to a class of antioxidants found in red wine, black and green tea, apples, and onions.
Remember, onions contain quercetin, a potent polyphenol that helps prevent the oxidation of LDL. But recent research has determined that the polyphenols in dark chocolate are more potent than the antioxidants in red wine.
In one study, the 205 mg of procyanidins in 1.5 oz. of chocolate were found to have antioxidant activity comparable to a small glass of red wine. And, as you might be wondering when you're deciding between a white or dark chocolate Easter bunny, not all chocolates are created equal. Dark chocolate health benefits are increased because it has the most polyphenol activity, while white chocolate has essentially zip, nada, zilch!
In fact, one study compared white chocolate to dark chocolate with 10 men and 10 women age 25 to 56 years old. They all fasted overnight. Then the "experimental group" ate an 80-g chocolate bar containing 557 mg of procyanidins, while the "controls" nibbled on a white chocolate bar.
Blood samples taken two hours later revealed that the study group had a definite rise in antioxidant activity, which reverted to normal within six hours. In essence, this finding was similar to previous experimentation with red wine. There was no change in antioxidant activity in the control group.
Dark Chocolate vs. "The Grape"
Two glasses of red wine increase the antioxidant activity in your blood for up to 4 hours, offering you some protection from the harmful effects of lipid peroxidation [excessive free radical stress occurring in blood vessels]. Lipid peroxidation is the first step in the accelerated aging of your blood vessels and increased risk of plaque formation.
Although red wine in moderation (about one 6-oz. glass every other day) is reasonable, the daily intake of red wine can injure liver cells, and result in liver dysfunction. Keep in mind that although the French have a low incidence of heart disease, they also have the highest incidence of cirrhosis in the world.
So, instead of reaching for the red wine, you might want to consider some dark chocolate. With this recent data, even I don't feel as guilty when I treat myself to dark chocolate.
Choc-a-little, Not a Lot
Now, with all this favorable research, do we have a license to eat chocolate at will? Sorry. Remember that chocolate contains sugars, caffeine, and trans fatty acids. As in all things, moderation is the key.
If you have considered chocolate and cocoas an absolute no-no, it's time to reevaluate. The dark chocolate health benefits are increasingly clear and these foods can be consumed safely on a limited basis. But if you're the kind of person to sit down with a large bag of M&Ms and scarf them while watching a movie, you're overdoing a good thing. You'll do yourself more harm than good with such habits.
An additional caution is that dark chocolate can act as a trigger-food or stimulant for people with an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). And, if you're diabetic, you must factor in the blood sugar problems that any sweet can cause and decide if chocolate is safe for you. The dark chocolate health benefits are not for everyone.
For the rest of you, the next time you want to have that dark chocolate bar, don't beat yourself up about it. Just savor, enjoy, and know that you're practicing good healthy heart nutrition. You might even have more warm, fuzzy feelings toward others (especially if they gave you the chocolate).