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No Guilt Today! 4 Health Benefits of Chocolate + A Few Myth Busters

Have you heard? Experts now say chocolate can be good for your heart. Our $1 billion in Valentine’s Day chocolates (and the 10 pounds of chocolate each of us eats yearly) may not be a health disaster.

Surprising new research finds chocolate contains health-promoting chemicals similar to those in red wine, tea, fruits and vegetables. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine‘s “Heart Watch” newsletter says “a sizable chunk of research” suggests cocoa compounds have modest “beneficial effects on specific factors linked to heart disease.” And the scientific Journal of Nutrition recently devoted a supplement to chocolate’s “medicinal benefits.”

Potential heart benefits

Antioxidants galore. Chocolate is rich in cell-protecting antioxidants. A 1.4-ounce piece of milk chocolate typically has 400 milligrams of antioxidants, as much as in a glass of red wine, says chemist Joe A. Vinson of the University of Scranton. Dark chocolate has twice as much; white chocolate, none. Antioxidant activity jumped 31% in the blood of subjects at the University of California, Davis, two hours after eating 2.8 ounces of M&Ms semisweet baking bits.

Anti-cholesterol. The antioxidants in chocolate help block chemical changes in bad LDL cholesterol that lead to clogged arteries. In fact, Vinson found chocolate’s antioxidants better than vitamin C at detoxifying LDLs. Research by Penny Kris-Etherton at Pennsylvania State University shows diets rich in dark chocolate or cocoa powder raise good HDL cholesterol. Previously, she found eating a milk chocolate bar daily for a month (in place of another high-carb snack) did not raise men’s bad cholesterol.

Clot blocker. Chocolate antioxidants act like aspirin to reduce blood platelet stickiness and thus the clotting that triggers heart attacks and strokes. In a recent study, 30 subjects drank water, a caffeine drink or a cocoa drink containing 1.5 times the antioxidants in typical hot cocoa. The cocoa significantly delayed blood-clotting time.

Vessel relaxant. Good vascular function (how well blood vessels relax) helps prevent heart disease, high blood pressure and artery clogging. Chocolate’s antioxidants (called procyanidins) relax vessels by increasing the chemical nitric oxide, according to new studies at the University of California, Davis.

You may wonder …

Won’t chocolate make me fat? Chocolate packs fat and sugar, so overindulging does put on pounds. But chocolate is not a prime cause of obesity, studies worldwide find. The Swiss eat twice as much chocolate per person as we do — 22 pounds a year — but have one of the lowest obesity rates.

Isn’t chocolate full of saturated fat, the type that clogs arteries? About 60% of chocolate’s fat is saturated, and a typical chocolate bar contains 8 grams of saturated fat, so bingeing on chocolate drives up your intake of saturated fat. But moderate amounts do not appear harmful. Extensive research at Harvard found women who ate chocolate bars three or four times a week were no more apt to have heart disease than women who rarely ate chocolate.

Isn’t the sugar in chocolate unhealthful? In excess, yes. But a chocolate bar’s glycemic index — a measure of ability to drive up blood sugar — is surprisingly low, about like oatmeal’s.

What about chocolate’s caffeine? A dark chocolate bar’s 10-30mg is modest next to the 100mg in a cup of coffee.

Isn’t most research funded by the chocolate industry? Yes, but it’s done by reputable scientists at leading universities and published in excellent scientific journals. Quaker paid for much original research on oats; that doesn’t make it untrue.

So have no guilt today as you indulge a few chocolate treats!

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