UNC Health Talk

Dark Chocolate: The Key to a Happy and Healthy Heart

If you’re choosing chocolate for your loved ones for Valentine’s Day, remember not all chocolate is equal. Consuming small amounts of dark chocolate can actually be associated with a decrease in risk for cardiovascular disease. Dark chocolate contains high concentrations of flavanols, or natural compounds that promote healthy blood vessel function. In contrast, milk chocolate only contains about half of the flavanols found in dark chocolate, and white chocolate virtually has none.

Flavanols are a subclass of plant-derived flavonoids that contribute to the sharp flavor in foods. They are also found in abundance in cocoa beans. Cocoa was first consumed by the Mayan civilization more than 2,500 years ago and was considered a medicine by many until the 20th century when it became a guilty indulgence. The Kuna Indians from Panama regularly consume cocoa and have a very low prevalence of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and age-related high blood pressure in their communities. Likewise, populations consuming the Mediterranean diet, which is full of flavanoid-rich red wine, fruit, nuts and vegetables, have also received attention for having a low prevalence of cardiovascular disease and hypertension. In contrast, cardiovascular disease is currently still one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Valentine Chocolate
Valentine Chocolate heart

Many experimental studies reveal potential cardiovascular benefits from cocoa rich in flavanols, such as dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and reverse endothelial dysfunction, which is present in people with vascular diseases or risks (those who are obese, smoke, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol). Eating a half bar of dark chocolate a week could potentially improve cardiovascular health.

Remember, moderation is the key. While consuming a little dark chocolate can be good, consuming too much can leave you with lots of calories, high sugar intake and high levels of saturated fat. But if you are going to choose something sweet, try skipping the milk or white chocolate and choose dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa.