Heart-Felt Sweet For My Sweet

Un cuore nel cioccolato

What do Valentine’s Day and cardiovascular health have in common? Well, both have obvious connections to matters of the heart, but there’s something else: Both can be improved with chocolate.

If you’ve been paying attention to medical news over the past few years, you’ll know that chocolate is being touted as heart healthy.

When Chocolate Is Good For You

There’s a catch, though. You just can’t go out and buy any old chocolate for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day and hope it will be heart healthy. Nope. If you want to reap the heart healthy benefits of chocolate, you have to buy the best, darkest, certified organic chocolate you can find. Of course, you wouldn’t want to do anything less than that for your sweetheart, or your own heart for that matter.

You see, it’s not really the chocolate you’re after, but the cocoa, especially if you want  romance-credits  from your sweetheart AND a sweetheart who will have a long, happy, healthy life with you. That’s because plain cocoa powder is rich in bioflavonoids—a group of plant nutrients that help protect plants and humans from disease and toxins—and  chocolate is probably not.

The protective qualities of cocoa’s bioflavonoids (commonly called “flavonoids”)  include significant antioxidant power, which helps protect your body from excessive amounts of free radicals that contribute to atherosclerosis, chronic inflammation, and other serious cardiovascular effects.

And there’s more. On its website, The Cleveland Clinic points out the following:

Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot. 

That’s pretty impressive work for the cocoa bean.

Caveat Emptor: Sugar Alert!

As we’ve said, though, you can’t just go out and buy your Valentine any old chocolate. As with all packaged foods, you have to read the label first. Let’s start by looking at the amount of sugar in your sweet treat.

We find there’s a problem with labels. They indicate the number of grams of sugar in a product, but what the heck does 15 grams of sugars really mean? What if we convert that to teaspoons? That, for most people, provides a much clearer picture of the amount of sugar they’re eating.

Let’s look at a popular brand of Swiss chocolate bar with sea salt. According to the label, three squares of this velvety confection contain a total of fifteen grams of sugars. Since there are five grams of sugar in one teaspoon, we can calculate that fifteen grams of sugars in this chocolate bar equals a total of three teaspoons.

Here’s the formula:

Grams of sugar divided by Five = Number of teaspoons of sugar

By examining the list of ingredients on the package, you also can see that sugar is the first ingredient on the list, which means there is more sugar in this chocolate bar than any other ingredient. You can also see that the source of the sugar is brown sugar (which is simply refined white sugar with a bit of molasses thrown in for color and flavor). Perhaps we should keep looking.

Another bar from the same company contains 85% cocoa, and the label indicates there are 4 grams of sugars in three squares. Using our formula again, let’s calculate:

Four grams of sugar divided by Five = 0.8 teaspoons of sugar in three squares

Three squares of the first bar contained three teaspoons of sugar—nearly four times what the second bar contained. Obviously, the second bar would be your healthier choice. Granted, the cocoa flavor is pretty intense (that’s the flavanols you’re tasting), but if you’re looking for the health-giving properties of cocoa, then less sugar is better.

It’s a Balancing Act

If you’ve read our book Eat to Save Your Life, you’ll know that plant nutrients are lost through processing. It’s the same with cocoa. As The Cleveland Clinic confirms, the flavanols in cocoa are lost through processing. To read more about this, click on the link to The Cleveland Clinic above. Their information and advice seems reasonable to us.

They also point out that the fat in chocolate also can be a consideration when you’re buying and eating chocolate. We’ve noticed that, generally speaking, the less fat in a sweet treat, the more sugar. That’s because fat offers flavor, and when the fat is removed, the flavor has to be enhanced with something—which, in chocolate treats and many other foods, means adding sugar. Ah! It’s a balancing act.

You have to ask yourself, though, is the fat in chocolate (typically cocoa butter) bad for you or is it getting a bad rap from the fat-free hype of the modern food industry? In our book, Chapter 6: Baffled by Fats can help to answer that question for you.

Here’s to a healthy heart,

Gloria and Jerre

  • Kerry Mitchell

    Great blog. I’m so glad to know a bit of chocolate is OK.

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