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Just a Spoonful of Dark Chocolate for Health

We can all feel a little better about our dark chocolate addiction.

Well known for its anti-oxidant effects, researchers announced recently that they had figured out why the favorite sweet can actually be good for your heart. Chocolate-seeking microbes in the belly convert the candy into anti-inflammatory compounds, scientists at the American Chemical Society in Dallas said last week.

After cocoa is digested, certain molecules remain in the gastrointestinal tract. They’re too big to be used as nutrients, but microbes in the colon break them down into molecules the body can use.

“These materials are anti-inflammatory and they serve to prevent or delay the onset of some forms of cardiovascular disease that are associated with inflammation,” said John Finley, a professor of food science and biochemistry at Louisiana State University.

Recent studies suggest dark chocolate – not white or milk -- can cause blood vessels to dilate and lower blood pressure. Part of that can be attributed to the dietary fiber in cocoa, which amounts to 30 percent.

High levels of "flavanols" seem to be the reason dark chocolate has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, all which benefits cardiovascular health, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Chocolate may also boost cognitive abilities, help improve memory, insulin sensitivity and increase blood flow to the brain.  

The amount of flavonols in cocoa products depends on plant genetics, how the plant is harvested, how the cocoa is processed and how the end product is prepared.  Over-processing can destroy flavonols.

When chocolate is high in cocoa, about 70%, it likely will contain less sugar.  Chocolate filled with sugar, milk and extra cocoa butter makes it more of a junk food than a health food.

If you’re feeling virtuous and want the healthful effects of dark chocolate without the sugar and calories, Finley recommends sprinkling about two tablespoons cocoa powder (at least 70% cocoa) on a bowl of your morning oatmeal. 

If you’re looking for a little more fun, you could indulge in a few chocolate-covered almonds and claim the benefits of protein and healthy fats, as well.

Source: The Los Angeles Times  and Dr. Pam Duitsman, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

Pamela Hasterok