Dark Chocolate: A Healthier Valentine Treat

Janis G. Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

Chocolate candy and flowers are popular Valentine’s Day gifts. Although chocolate is not a health food, it tastes good and some types can be good for you when eaten in moderation.

The darker the chocolate is, the healthier it is for you. The most beneficial is dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. Dark chocolate is rich in flavonols, which are healthy antioxidants that also are found in fruits, vegetables, green tea, red wine, etc. Flavonoids give dark chocolate a slightly bittersweet taste. However, they also provide cardiovascular benefits, such as helping to reduce the risk for developing heart disease, stroke, cancer and even premature aging.

Some specific health benefits of eating dark chocolate may include:

  • lowering blood pressure among people with hypertension*
  • decreasing the oxidation rate of LDL (bad cholesterol), which leads to artery plaque build-up
  • increasing levels of HDL (good cholesterol)
  • increasing the time it takes for blood to clot
  • improving elasticity in blood vessels leading to healthy blood flow
  • improving insulin resistance*

*This does not mean that people with high blood pressure or diabetes should replace other important blood pressure-reduction methods (e.g. medication and exercise) with eating dark chocolate.

Not all types of chocolate have health benefits. Milk chocolate, which most Americans eat, has a low amount of flavonoids and antioxidant value. It also has a relatively high sugar and saturated fat content and has been shown to increase blood cholesterol levels. White chocolate, which is a blend of cocoa butter and sugar, does not contain any of the beneficial flavonoids that are in chocolate. In addition, more than half the fat in white chocolate is saturated.

Research shows that we should eat more antioxidant-rich foods, and cocoa is one of the richest sources of antioxidants found in any food. However, most of the antioxidants in the diet should come from nutrient-dense, low-calorie, brightly-colored fruits and vegetables and calorie-free green or black tea.

In a comparison of different chocolate products, cocoa powder ranks highest in antioxidants, having almost twice as much as red wine. Next in antioxidant value is dark chocolate, which contains about eight times the antioxidants of strawberries. There are as many antioxidants in 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate as there are in five ounces of red wine. Dark chocolate also contains up to three times the antioxidants found in green tea. For more information on the sources and roles of antioxidants in the diet, refer to: HGIC 4064, Antioxidants.

In November 2007 the USDA Agricultural Research Service released a new, expanded database of antioxidant values for 277 foods, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, chocolates, teas, wines, etc. Many of the fruits, nuts, vegetables and spices listed were analyzed for their Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, known as ORAC. ORAC is one of several methods available to evaluate the antioxidant capacities of foods to keep harmful oxygen free radicals from damaging our bodies. The new list expands upon the 171 foods included in the 2004 data released by ARS. To access the new database, go to: http://www.ars.usda.gov/nutrientdata/ORAC.

Antioxidant-rich fruit and chocolate make a pleasing combination. On Valentine’s Day dip a variety of fruits into some warm chocolate fondue, preferably the dark variety, as an occasional treat. Whole fresh strawberries, thick banana slices, grapes, and dried apricot halves provide delicious options. Another low-calorie, low-fat dipping choice is angel food cake cubes.

Melting Away Some Chocolate Myths

  • Chocolate does not cause acne or tooth decay.
  • Chocolate does not contain a lot of caffeine. An 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk has only two more milligrams of caffeine than a 5-ounce cup of decaffeinated coffee.
  • Chocolate cannot become addictive. Some people, whom we refer to as “chocoholics,” just have a strong preference for its taste, aroma and texture.
  • Chocolate bars are not less healthful than carob bars. Both have the same amount of calories and fat.

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