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Chocolate may be good for heart in two ways
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Chocolates and roses are good gifts for Valentine's Day, and as long as the chocolate is not eaten all at once, it can be good for the heart, too.
Brent Fountain, human nutrition specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said chocolate contains compounds known as flavenoids that are basically phytonutrients, or nutrients produced by plants.
“Phytonutrients provide some benefit to the plant, such as sun protection, and then when we eat those substances, we get a different kind of benefit,” Fountain said. “We know there are benefits, but we don't know what amount is needed to provide these benefits.”
There are thousands of phytonutrients found in plants, and researchers have only studied several hundred of them.
“The flavenoids found in chocolate have been shown to decrease blood pressure and improve circulation,” Fountain said. “Some studies have shown they are antioxidants that reduce the amount of potentially cancer-causing free radicals in the body.”
Fountain said many studies have been done on chocolate to learn its health benefits. He cautioned that some of these studies were funded by chocolate companies, and if these findings are excluded, chocolate's healthful benefits get mixed reviews.
“The chocolates considered to offer the most benefit are dark chocolates, which contain the most cocoa,” Fountain said. “Milk chocolate is a Valentine's chocolate, and semi-sweet chocolate is used in cookies, but the dark chocolate, which is consumed less, seems to have the most benefit.”
While chocolates do contain beneficial flavenoids, Fountain said the best sources of helpful phytonutrients are fruits and vegetables. For instance, oranges contain almost 200 different types of phytonutrients in a single fruit.
“As consumers, it is important not to get caught up in benefits of single nutrients. Instead, focus on the entire food and all its ingredients,” Fountain said. “Make sure you're getting the proper nutrients you need from a well-balanced diet.”
When Valentine's Day comes around and chocolates are tempting, make adjustments in that day's diet to meet the body's nutritional needs while still saving room for chocolate.
“The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans talk about discretionary calories. These are similar to discretionary money in your budget,” Fountain said. “If you're able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need and consume less than the recommended calorie amount for your weight, age and activity level, the rest are discretionary calories that you can use to eat some chocolate.”
Fountain said the best way to increase the amount of discretionary calories available in a day is to exercise, but he cautioned consumers against replacing needed nutrients with sweets.
Peggy Walker, Extension nutrition area agent based in Panola County, said chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are removed from their pods, fermented, dried, roasted and cracked. They are then ground to extract the cocoa butter, a natural vegetable fat.
“That leaves a thick, dark brown paste called chocolate liqueur,” Walker said. “This liqueur is processed and ingredients are added to make chocolate.”
While the cocoa in chocolate is good for the heart, ingredients like sugar, butter, nuts, caramel and cream make it less than ideal for overall health. She urged gift-givers to be creative when selecting Valentines gifts for loved ones.
“Chocolate is good, but there are other good things for Valentine's Day. Give them their favorite music, give your Valentine a romantic dinner for two followed by a moonlit walk, take them to a performance or give them roses,” Walker said.