Perryman Nutrition Column: Chocolate—Is it a Heart-Healthy Indulgence?

Note to Editors: The following column was written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, College of Applied Human Sciences.

Have you ever considered enjoying an entire day of chocolate? If you’re a chocoholic like me, it sounds enticing. Start the morning with a chocolate donut and steaming hot cocoa. Reach for a bag of chocolate coated candies mid-morning. Add a tall glass of chocolate milk to lunch. For an afternoon snack munch on chocolate covered nuts. After dinner savor a warm brownie with a small scoop of chocolate ice cream. Yum!  

Unfortunately for you fellow chocoholics, I’m not actually advocating a chocolate diet but pointing out how readily available chocolate is – particularly around Valentine’s Day. It’s no doubt that many people have a significant relationship with chocolate. The big question is how healthy is it to include chocolate in the diet at all?  

Chocolate falls into the "discretionary calories" of the dietary guidelines. That means chocolate should be enjoyed as a small indulgence. Translated into numbers a typical 2,000 calorie diet includes 265 discretionary calories for all treats. A typical 1-ounce piece of chocolate contains 150 calories. Most nutritionists would suggest spending those 265 calories on healthy choices. Preliminary research indicates chocolate may offer some health benefits due to its flavonoid content.

Flavonoids contain natural antioxidants which are anti-clotting and anti-inflammatory. Flavonoids also help relax the blood vessels which may help to lower blood pressure and promote cardiovascular health. They may also make the LDL, or bad cholesterol, less dangerous.  However, studies to date have provided limited evidence. There is some concern that many current studies, in addition to being over a short period of time and conducted on too small a number of subjects, may also have biased conclusions because they have been industry-funded.  Research is not far enough along to permit health claims on packaging for chocolate. In the meantime it’s left up to the consumer to determine which chocolate is the healthiest choice.

Unfortunately, reading the label of a chocolate treat for flavonoid content isn’t very helpful because the level depends on the type of cocoa beans used and how they are processed. As much as 90 percent of flavonoids in cocoa can be lost in processing. Some manufacturers tout special processing techniques they’ve developed to preserve more of the flavonoid content. Other companies claim to have flavonoid or antioxidant content information for their products.  However, this information is from lab testing which has not yet been standardized.   

However, shrewd  and deductive label reading can help you make the best choice. More cocoa powder is a plus because of a higher content of flavonoids, but extra cocoa butter in that treat means more calories without a health benefit. Cocoa butter contains saturated fat, although it’s not the bad kind that raises LDL cholesterol. Some treats also contain unhealthy coconut, palm kernel or palm oil. Also, avoid those that indicate 0.5 grams of trans fat in one serving.

Follow these suggestions to choose the healthiest chocolate, but recognize that reading the label won’t always give you all the information you want:  

– The first ingredient should be cocoa in some form (beans or liquor). Steer clear of those that list sugar first.

– The higher the percentage of cocoa, the better. Aim for chocolates that are 60 percent or more cocoa.

– Not all chocolate is created equal. Bittersweet dark chocolate is at least 60 percent cocoa and semi-sweet dark chocolate is 50 to 70 percent cocoa. Most milk chocolates range from 30 to 40 percent. Chocolate syrup is the lowest on the list.

– Look for "extras." Dried fruit and nuts are healthier extra calories than caramel.

–  Natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed or alkali-processed) has the highest levels of flavonoids. White chocolate contains no cocoa powder-only cocoa butter and sugar.

Taking the caloric price of an ounce of chocolate into account along with the recommendation for limits on discretionary calories, an ounce or so won’t hurt you and it may help your cardiovascular health.   

Unless you overindulge you shouldn’t feel guilty about choosing chocolate. I certainly plan to enjoy every bite of my daily dose of chocolate-but only the healthiest kinds, of course.