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Chocolate Could Be Good for the Heart, but Check Out the Cocoa Content

So let’s pop the question: Is chocolate good for us ... or not? A team of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health looked at several research studies and said this:

“A growing body of evidence suggests that the consumption of foods rich in polyphenolic compounds, particularly cocoa, may have cardioprotective effects.” Translation: Cocoa contains a group of natural substances that may make our hearts happy.

One group of these “polyphenolic compounds” (known collectively as “flavanols”) show special promise in keeping arteries clear and flexible, say researchers. A bit of chocolate — especially the dark variety — may help lower blood pressure and slow down the process of heart disease.

While most saturated fat is considered “bad” because it raises the dangerous LDL cholesterol in our blood, the primary saturated fat that occurs naturally in chocolate is stearic acid — a “neutral” fat that does not tend to affect cholesterol levels.

More recent studies have noted that cocoa contains constituents that may also help improve brain function and lower our risk for diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

But alas, these truths about chocolate are bittersweet, say experts. Cocoa powder — the nonfat part of the cocoa seed that contains the most beneficial substances — is also the most bitter-tasting. We may be wooed by sweet and creamy varieties, but they may not hold the best promise for our tender hearts.

So in chocolate as in love — it pays to look for the good qualities. Chocolates richest in cocoa content are more apt to be rich in heart-protective flavanols as well, say experts. In general, dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate. And white chocolate may be full of empty promises since it contains no cocoa at all.

Is there a daily “dose” of chocolate we can trust to keep our hearts beating? No one knows for sure and it’s too early to set a daily minimum requirement for chocolate.

Darn.

Experts do say, however that chocolate has benefits that are “acute” as well as “chronic.” That means we can get a health boost that is immediate as well as long-term when enjoy cocoa-rich chocolate.

Harvard researcher and epidemiologist Eric Ding sums up our hunger to find something good in chocolate thusly: “We continue to uncover wide-ranging benefits of cocoa flavanols for health and longevity, and it looks like this trend will continue.”

I love that.

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(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at bquinnchomp.org.)

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©2013 The Monterey County Herald

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