Health Column: Dark chocolate does the body good

Dark chocolate can be good for the heart. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Everyone knows a taste of chocolate is good for the soul. But not everyone knows that it’s also good for the heart.

Depending on how it’s made, chocolate can be a heart-healthy option that reduces both inflammation of cardiovascular tissues and the risk of stroke, a new study by Louisiana State University has found.

Maryann Birmingham, nutrition educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said health experts had long believed in chocolate’s positive effects on the heart, but the reason behind its benefits had remained a mystery — until now.

The benefits of dark chocolate, according to the study, begin when the cocoa reaches the colon, according to the study.

Louisiana researchers discovered that certain bacteria in the gut chow down on the chocolate, fermenting it into anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for the heart, according to the American Chemical Society, which promotes chemistry-related research.

“When these compounds are absorbed by the body, they lessen the inflammation of cardiovascular tissue, reducing the long-term risk of stroke,” research leader Dr. John Finley said in a release about the study.

Ms. Birmingham noted, however, that the benefits to be had come only from dark chocolate, which tends to be less processed and is therefore a purer form of the cacao bean.

Those in the chocolate industry use “cacao” to refer to the plant and its beans before processing. The beans are roasted, shelled and processed to form “cocoa” powder, which is used to make all things chocolate.

“The concentrated cocoa is what’s going to break down, giving you those anti-inflammatory compounds,” Ms. Birmingham said, adding that dark chocolate has higher concentrations of the powder than milk chocolate.

“With milk chocolate, you’re not going to get those benefits because of milk solids and all the added sugar that is used to make it sweet,” she said.

Cocoa powder contains several antioxidant compounds, including catechin, which is also found in wine, and epicatechin, which can be found in berries. Both components are poorly digested and absorbed in the stomach, but when they reach the colon, that’s when the magic happens, according to the ACS.

The Louisiana researchers said there are even more health benefits to be had when dark chocolate is combined with solid fruits like pomegranate and acai.

So instead of picking up that milk chocolate bunny for the kids next week, consider springing for a healthier dark chocolate option.

Ms. Birmingham said it may take time for people to become accustomed to the flavor of dark chocolate, but making the switch will be good for you and your sweetheart.

And, like anything, dark chocolate should still be consumed in reasonable amounts, Ms. Birmingham said, recommending no more than two ounces a day.

So, enjoy — and eat responsibly.

Carrie Miller

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].