Valentine’s Day is this week, so you may be the lucky recipient of a box of chocolates. Hopefully you enjoyed it! Of course, eating too many sweets, including chocolate, isn’t good for you. But eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some health benefits.
The idea that chocolate may be healthy is no doubt welcome news for chocoholics. But it may leave you wondering if eating chocolate really is healthy. The answer depends on what you mean by chocolate and what you mean by healthy.
First, it is worth understanding what it is about chocolate that may promote health. The health benefits of chocolate have to do with the fact that it comes from a plant, the cacao tree. Like many plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, chocolate contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have health benefits.
Indeed, chocolate does contain antioxidant flavonoids that have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. These flavonoids are also found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as coffee, tea and wine. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels and reduce stress.
The chocolate that we eat contains two main components from the cacao plant, cocoa and cocoa butter, in addition to added sugar and other ingredients. Cocoa is the non-fat component of the cocoa bean and cocoa butter is mostly fat. The flavonoids are found in the cocoa, so chocolate that is richer in cocoa, like dark chocolate, contains more of these beneficial compounds.
For example, dark chocolate may contain 70% cocoa, compared to 25% cocoa in milk chocolate. These flavonoids also give dark (sometimes called semisweet) chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. This is also because dark chocolate may contain less sugar than milk chocolate, but this isn’t always true.