Kind hearts and dark chocolate

It’s February, and Valentine’s Day has come. Everywhere you look, there have been hearts in all shades of pink and red adorning gifts for loved ones and friends — roses, cards, flowers, and chocolate.

Chocolate is a staple of the season, often sold in red satin heart-shaped boxes. Though many might think of chocolate as a treat to be avoided, a little dark chocolate — in moderation — may in fact be good for your heart.

Chocolate is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavinoids. Flavonoids are plant-derived antioxidants found in other cocoa products as well as in tea, wine, grains, nuts, and berries.

Native to the Americas, the cacao tree likely originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, current-day Venezuela. Chocolate was then introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who also brought the cacao tree to the West Indies, Philippines and Africa. Swedish natural scientist Carl Linnaeus gave the cacao plant its botanical name, Thoebroma (“food of the gods”) cacao.

Flavanol-rich cocoa is thought to have a number of cardiovascular benefits. Hollenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School studied the effects of cocoa on Panama’s Kuna people, who are heavy consumers of cocoa. These researchers found that the Kuna Indians living on the islands had significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer as compared to their counterparts on the mainland who did not consume cocoa as on the islands.

It is believed that increased blood flow following the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa may be responsible for much of these health benefits.

According to a meta-analysis published in the 2007 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, cocoa-rich food products appear to reduce blood pressure. A study reporting on 15-year data for elderly men which appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006 documents an astounding 50% reduction in cardiovascular mortality and 47% reduction in all-cause mortality for men regularly consuming the most cocoa, compared to those consuming the least cocoa from all sources.

Beth Klos RD, LDN, an outpatient senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, provides a few tips on incorporating cocoa-containing products into your diet in a healthy way:

  • Limit yourself to a small piece of chocolate (one ounce), about one-third of a bar of chocolate. It is important to limit the intake to one ounce per day in children — be sure to watch the amount of sugar and fats.
  • Choose dark chocolate (especially if not heavily processed) and new high-flavinoid chocolate or cocoa products rather than milk chocolate or Dutch-processed (alkalinized) chocolate products.
  • Try a strawberry or any other piece of fresh fruit dipped in dark chocolate sauce.

Enjoy chocolate the healthy way.

Dr. Brotanek is a pediatrician with Ridgefield Pediatric Associates.

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