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Chocolate may reduce risk of heart disease

by Shani Friedman
Dietetic Intern
Though I am a dietetic intern, I’m also a chocoholic. To me, it doesn’t get any better than chocolate. It’s just one of those things I cannot resist and can’t get enough of. You probably know that chocolate is high in sugar and fat, and therefore is not the healthiest food in the world. However, recent research suggests that chocolate may benefit health by reducing risk for heart disease and depression. In moderation, most of us can enjoy this sweet treat.
Chocolate is made out of the seed of the tropical cacao tree commonly grown in South America and Africa near the equator. The seeds of the cacao tree are, in fact, bitter and must be fermented to develop their sweet taste. Chocolate is composed of two main ingredients: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa solids are what we know as cocoa powder. It is what provides the characteristic color and flavor of chocolate as we know it. Cocoa butter is a vegetable fat that is extracted from the cocoa bean, and it is what provides the smoothness to the chocolate.
Chocolate can be classified into different categories based on the type and amount of ingredients they contain:

  • Dark Chocolate—pure and unsweetened, commonly used for baking, and made primarily from varying ratios of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Made with very little or no milk, it must contain at least 35 percent cocoa solids. Good quality chocolate may contain 60 percent to 85 percent cocoa solids. The higher the cocoa solids content, the more bitter it will taste; but the less cocoa butter and sugar make it health preferable.
  • Milk Chocolate—a sweeter chocolate commonly used in candy bars, and made of 10 percent to 20 percent cocoa solids and butter with more than 12 percent milk solids.
  • White Chocolate—used mostly in mousse and other desserts, contains minimal to no amounts of cocoa solids. Primarily composed of cocoa butter, milk, sugar, an emulsifier, and other flavorings. In some countries, white chocolate cannot be called chocolate due to the low content of cocoa solids. (This is not healthy.)

Studies on the benefits of consuming cocoa and dark chocolate highlight the link to the large amount of flavanoids, a form of antioxidants, which are found in chocolate. Chocolate containing high amounts of cocoa solids has the most flavanoids and helps reduce blood pressure, therefore reducing the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Chocolate containing the highest concentration of cocoa solids are the most health beneficial among the chocolates. (Go for a dark chocolate with at least 60 percent cocoa solids.)
Phenylethylamine also is a natural compound found in chocolate. It has slight antidepressant and stimulant properties similar to the body’s own hormones dopamine and adrenaline. When these hormones are elevated, your mood improves, lending credibility to the “feel good” effect.
Remember, chocolate is high in calories and shouldn’t be considered a health food. But if you choose a version high in cocoa solids and consume it in moderate amounts, chocolate actually can be good for you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

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