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Science backs up our need for chocolate therapy

It’s said that physicians of old prescribed chocolate to cure a broken heart. Who would argue with that? And here’s how a 16th-century Spanish explorer described this sensuous indulgence: “It gives admirable pleasure and satisfaction of the bodily nature … strength, nourishment and vigor in such a way that those who are accustomed to it cannot remain robust without it.”

Broken heart or not, most of us may be pleased to know there is some real science behind our occasional urge for chocolate therapy. Here’s the good and cautious news about this food we love.

Chocolate gets its creamy, melt-in-your-mouthy feel from cocoa butter – the fat in cacao (aka cocoa) beans. This buttery goodness is high in saturated fats, which we are generally called to avoid. Yet the most abundant saturated fat in cocoa butter is stearic acid, a well-behaved saturated fat that does not raise blood cholesterol levels.

Cocoa powder – what’s left after cocoa butter is extracted – is the part of the cocoa bean with the most purported benefits, say researchers. Among other healthful substances, cocoa powder is rich in naturally occurring plant chemicals called “flavonols.” These compounds work as potent antioxidants to keep arteries clear and flexible, say researchers.

Dark chocolate can have as much as 50 times more cocoa and therefore more flavonols than milk chocolate. But prepare yourself: Chocolate with higher amounts of flavonols usually has a more bitter taste. Still, studies in which volunteers ate small amounts of dark chocolate each week found that this habit was associated with lower blood pressure, improved insulin resistance and lower cholesterol levels.

White chocolate, by the way, is made from straight cocoa butter and no cocoa powder. It therefore contains no health-redeeming flavonols.

Lest we forget, chocolate also contains stimulants such as caffeine and theobromine that may not be so great to an injured heart. In healthy young men, however, a combination of these two components (such as might be found in cocoa powder) were found to have a beneficial affect on heart function.

For us old folks, a study reported by the American Heart Association (www.heart.org) found that elderly people who consistently drank powdered cocoa drinks had improved mental function, lower blood pressures and a lower risk for dementia. Again, the flavonols in cocoa were assumed to be responsible for this effect. By the way, experts recommend making cocoa drinks with unsweetened cocoa powder.

Lest we forget, nutrition experts caution us that chocolate can also be high in calories from fat and sugar. We should indulge only on occasion.

Lastly, why do we crave chocolate when we’re stressed or feeling like our hearts are broken? That’s another column. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition.” Email her at barbara@quinnessentialnutrition.com.

 

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