Even though I've written numerous times before about the heart-health benefits of dark chocolate, I know many people may still be surprised that I actually consider it to be a Super Food. But over the past several years, the body of research documenting the various cardio-protective effects of cocoa and dark chocolate has grown at an impressive rate.
As early as 2000, researchers determined that dark chocolate has a positive impact on blood platelet activity similar to that of a baby aspirin. It was also found that dark chocolate causes relaxation of the inner lining of blood vessels and promotes the formation of nitric oxide, which further dilates arteries. All of these verified benefits improve blood circulation and ultimately lower blood pressure.
More recent research has shown that regular chocolate eaters have a lower risk of cardiometabolic disorders (which is a combination of risk factors that can lead to both heart disease and diabetes) and experience lower rates of cardiac mortality after a first-time heart attack compared to those who don't eat chocolate regularly. In fact, in a meta-analysis of seven studies, five of the seven showed that higher chocolate consumption was linked to a 37-percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29-percent reduction in strokes.
It's believed that most of the cardiac protection afforded by dark chocolate comes from the powerful antioxidant flavonoid compounds it contains. Flavonoids are known to improve circulation, help control blood pressure, reduce inflammation, prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, and counteract free-radical molecules that damage healthy cells. In addition, dark chocolate is rich in oleic acid, a fatty acid that helps lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
A Little Goes A Long Way
As you may have noticed by now, I've been singing the praises of dark chocolate specifically. That's because dark chocolate packs far more antioxidants than milk chocolate, is lower in sugar, and doesn't contain as much processed oil or high fructose corn syrup. Consequently, to get the most heart-healthy flavonoids, choose dark chocolate (preferably organic) that contains at least 65 percent cocoa.
My favorite brand of chocolate is Chocolove, a premium Belgian chocolate sold online (chocolove.com) and in select natural food stores, including Whole Foods Markets. Chocolove products have high cocoa content, but their "strong dark" bar with 70 percent cocoa provides the best balance between taste and health benefits.
Moderation, of course, is also important considering the high caloric cost of chocolate. So, while I don't recommend eating chocolate daily, having a square or two every couple days, or occasionally swapping out your a.m. cup of coffee for a morning mug of the Mexican Hot Chocolate featured below, is a sweet and smart way to protect your heart health. (Get more heart-healthy recipes.) Just note that the caffeine in chocolate can aggravate cardiac arrhythmias and the sugar in it can clearly cause blood sugar problems for diabetics, so I discourage chocolate for those folks bothered by these disorders. You can, however, curb the insulin response to this hot chocolate treat by eating some quality protein and healthy fats along with it, such as a hard-boiled egg or handful of almonds or walnuts.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
- 4 cups organic low-fat milk
- 1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- ¾ tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground nutmeg
- 1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- Cinnamon sticks for garnish (optional)
In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, combine the milk, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract. Bring the mixture just to a boil over medium heat. Whisk in the cocoa powder, and simmer for 2 minutes, continuing to whisk the mixture. Pour the hot chocolate into mugs and serve with cinnamon sticks if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition Facts (per serving): Calories 193, Total Fat 4 g, Sodium 132 mg, Carbs 34 g, Fiber 3 g, Protein 9 g