Is it any coincidence that two images-hearts and chocolate-are inescapable during February? Chocolate is linked to affairs of the heart, but can it be good for the heart?
Maybe. According to published research, between one and 10 tablespoons (10 to 100 calories) per day of cocoa, or two 20-gram tasting squares (90 calories total) of dark chocolate, may provide some health benefits.
Unwrap the science
Much of the research about cocoa's health benefits has been conducted over the last 10 years. According to David A. Stuart, Ph.D., with the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, more than 740 beneficial bioactive components have been identified in cocoa beans. For example, health-promoting sterols, resveratrol, flavan-3-ols and especially flavanols are abundant in cocoa. And the fatty acids in cocoa are either neutral for blood cholesterol or actually help lower it.
Is dark chocolate truly the best? According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, flavanols are most concentrated in cocoa powder, followed by baking chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate and, finally, syrup.
No surprise, nearly all the clinical trial studies have been conducted with cocoa powder or dark chocolate. The research suggests beneficial effects on cardiovascular risk factors such as serum cholesterol, blood pressure, vascular reactivity, platelet stickiness and systemic inflammation. However, the research has been done only with adults and there is no proof of health benefits for children at this time.
Kids and chocolate
"A cup of hot chocolate prepared with real cocoa powder is an excellent way to consume relatively high amounts of chocolate flavanols," says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
What about milk chocolate? Many children prefer it because it's smoother and sweeter to the taste. Blumberg, who along with Stuart, spoke at the 2010 American Dietetic Association Food & Nutrition Conference, says milk chocolate does contain the same flavonoids as dark chocolate, but at a 20- to 50-percent lower concentration. There are no flavonoids in white chocolate, as it is not made from the cocoa bean.
Parents often worry about the caffeine in chocolate and its stimulant effect on young children. Actually, there are two naturally occurring stimulants: caffeine and theobromine. Caffeine is present in the same order in chocolate products as flavanols, with cocoa powder being the highest, etc. But the amount is small. For example, a 1.55-ounce milk chocolate bar contains about 12 milligrams of caffeine, the same amount in about three cups of decaf coffee.
Closely linked to caffeine, theobromine has only a mild stimulatory effect. Dark chocolate, unsweetened baking chocolate and cocoa powder contain more theobromine than do milk chocolate and syrups.
When it comes to the amount of chocolate to shoot for, Blumberg notes consistency is key and eating it every day is what provides the most benefits. He also reminds parents to practice moderation.
"Children need to learn the important lesson that candy-even with healthy phytochemicals like flavonoids-is candy and should be consumed in small amounts as a fun, but indulgent, treat."
Christine M. Palumbo, RD, is a Naperville dietitian, mother of three and the wife of a chocoholic. Herself? Not so much. Contact her at Chris@ChristinePaumbo.com.