Flip the calendar to February and just like Pavlov’s dogs, you may immediately salivate for dark chocolate, bright red roses and heart shaped everything. You may think that Valentine’s day is a romantic holiday fueled by Victoria’s Secret, florists and chocolatiers, but there is a reason for everyone to celebrate this Heart Healthy Month. For the 40 plus percent of people flying solo this season (the ones that rolled eyes at the heart encircling the 14th on the office calendar), there are reasons why you too should read on and learn of the health highlights of this ‘guilty pleasure’.
First - learning the language of chocolate and discovering the nutrients hidden in this gift from earth can empower you to look beyond the diet taboo and instead intentionally enjoy the benefits chocolate has to offer (perhaps innocently on more than one occasion per year).
Within the fruit pods of the Theobroma cacao tree lie cacao beans, the preliminary form of chocolate harboring the health benefits which transform the reputation of this guilty pleasure into an innocent delight. Cacao refers to the tropical tree (see image below) and bean, and is not to be confused with the term cocoa.
There are approximately 20-60 cacao beans per pod, which are removed from their pods, undergo fermentation and then are dried, roasted, and crushed. The resulting nibs are separated from their shells. You can purchase cacao nibs at natural foods stores (Whole Foods, PCC, Madison Market). These nibs are then ground to extract cocoa butter while producing a brown paste known as chocolate liquor during the extraction process.
When further extraction is performed, the cocoa mass that results can be ground to produce unsweetened cocoa powder. Unsweetened chocolate, the most commonly recognized form of chocolate by consumers, is made by mixing heated chocolate liquor with cocoa butter and sometimes lecithin. Bittersweet, semisweet, or simply sweet chocolate has sugar, vanilla and lecithin added.
Now that you are more fluent in the language of chocolate, you can advance to learn of the nutrients and other components in chocolate contributing to its health benefits.
Chocolate contains several minerals including magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium.
Antioxidants, specifically a group called flavonoids, are also naturally abundant in the cacao bean, as are plant sterols. Flavonoids act as antioxidants in protecting against cellular damage and in preventing the formation of blood clots, therefore playing a cardiovascular protective role. Plant sterols may inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
Additional important components of chocolate are caffeine and theobromine, a caffeine-like substance (poisonous to your pets), both of which are mild stimulants and exert vasodilating and diuretic effects on the body. A result of vasodilation is a decrease in blood pressure, also contributing to chocolate’s reputation as a heart-healthy food.
Based on these facts, it may be safe to say that in moderation, dark cacao can complement a healthy diet. To ensure that you are maximizing the benefits of your sweet delight, select unsweetened or semisweet chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa tolerable to your taste buds.
Happy Heart Month and Valentines Day!