The joy — and benefit — of chocolate

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, a time when Americans purchase about 58 million pounds of chocolate, more than five percent of the country’s total annual chocolate sales.

In case that’s hard to imagine, picture almost six million original Hershey’s bars and $345 million in sales, according to Nielsen market research.

Even though gorging on candy isn’t on any nutritionist’s recommendation lists for any holiday, chocolate, when eaten in small quantities and in the best form, can have some health benefits beyond just satisfying a love-sick sweet tooth.

What’s Inside

Cocoa plants, like most other plants, contain a naturally occurring antioxidant called flavonoids. Also found in many fruits and vegetables, flavonoids are natural safeguards against toxins, which can have a similar effect on your own body.

Kati Mora, a registered dietitian writing for Diets in Review, said flavanols, the main type of flavonoid in cocoa and chocolate, contains antioxidants much like different fruits and vegetables.

“The antioxidants in chocolate are what can be good about it,” agreed Jan Rary, a registered dietitian for Marietta Memorial Hospital.

What’s important to remember is that those antioxidants are only from pure cocoa, not from all the extra sugars and fats that come with a candy bar.

“The more cocoa, the more flavanols, and the better for you the chocolate becomes,” Mora said.

Those antioxidants, according to the Cleveland Clinic, help the body’s cells resist damage caused by environmental contaminants. As the term suggests, antioxidants lower the level of oxidation in the body, which can cause low-density lipoprotein, also known as “bad cholesterol.”

Though most people are aware that antioxidants are a plus, Rary said their place inside cocoa should not serve as an excuse to eat a lot of chocolate candy.

Though it’s no surprise that chocolate can have its share of fat and sugar, this also becomes less of a factor when eating sweets that are richer in cocoa.

Milk chocolate, a favorite and the more common among Valentine’s Day candy as well as any other check-out aisle bar, is diluted with milk, sugar and cream.

Elaine Magee, a registered dietitian and health columnist, breaks down the supposed “bad stuff” that is in cocoa butter, which if you’re looking for healthier chocolate, should be one of the first listed ingredients.

One tablespoon of cocoa butter contains about 8 grams of saturated fat, 4.5 grams of monounsaturated fat, and 0.4 grams of polyunsaturated fat. Although it might raise eyebrows at first glance, the fats in cocoa butter contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and stearic acid, components that are better for people than the trans fats that make up a lot of other sugary foods.

The Benefits

More than a few studies have been done by medical professionals and nutritionists to determine the health benefits, which focus on dark chocolate because of its higher content of cocoa and its purer form.

Magee’s report gives a list of all possibilities that have been noted, which range from heart health to improving fatigue.

Though it may not be enough to cancel out drinking, smoking and other fatty foods, chocolate can help reduce the risk of a heart attack.

Chocolate consumption causes blood platelets to clot more slowly, according to Magee’s report.

“This is significant because when platelets clump, a clot can form, and when the clot blocks a blood vessel, it can lead to a heart attack,” Magee said.

According to the report, snacking on chocolate can also lower insulin resistance, a major risk factor in diabetes; help with chronic fatigue by providing you with more energy; and better blood flow, which helps regulate a circulatory system, which Magee wrote is particularly helpful to men, who are often at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases.

These benefits, Rary stresses, can be hard to attain because people often tend toward milk chocolates.

“Milk chocolate does not have the benefits that dark chocolate has, so it really doesn’t apply,” she said. “It’s still not quite a health food.”

Peanut butter-filled milk chocolates and heart shape boxes that line candy aisles around Valentine’s Day may offer little health benefit.

“I usually buy milk chocolate, but if someone buys me dark chocolate, I’ll enjoy it,” said Marietta resident Heidi Humphrey. “I think in moderation it’s fine.”

Marietta residents Edward and Carol Pabst agree. Milk chocolate is favored, but dark chocolate is tasty.

“We do get around to eating it sometimes,” Edward said.

What to Look For/Avoid

Since pure cocoa is the ticket to the health benefits, it is important to look for how a particular kind of chocolate is processed and handled.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, when cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce the very pungent, bitter taste it exhibits in its pure form. The more chocolate is processed, the more flavanols are lost.

Experts recommend chocolate that is made of at least 65 percent cocoa. Lindt Excellence smooth dark chocolate squares are one example that are tasty and easy to find in most grocery stores.

Rary said that just because something is considered dark chocolate, does not mean you should feel free to eat more of it. She has purchased a bag of Dove dark chocolates, a favorite around Valentine’s Day, and tells people in presentations not to let these brands fool you.

“If you look at one nutrition label, they still had so much saturated fat in them,” she said.

The problem is, Rary said, that people do not tend to like the purer dark chocolate that can have a bitter taste.

“If they like the dark chocolate, it’s going to be the kind with all the butter fat,” she said.

The Cleveland Clinic also said to be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose, because too much sugar is going to negate anything good a person can get from the cocoa.

“Chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option,” the clinic’s report said.

“Watch out for those extra ingredients that can add lots of extra fat and calories.”

Moderation, like in any other healthy diet plan, is also a big factor, Rary said.

Many standard-sized candy bars contain about 550 calories and 30 to 40 grams of fat.

Mora’s report recommends no more than three ounces of chocolate per day, which can be added to healthy foods.

Yogurt, cereals and fruits are all foods high in vitamins, low in fat, high in antioxidants and that taste great with chocolate.