Scripps Howard News Service
February 01, 2005
And don't feel guilty about indulging in chocolate: The sweet stuff just might be good for us.
Cautioning that moderation is key, researchers say chocolate can protect our hearts, help prevent cancer and even help us live longer. And speaking of hearts, these are just extra reasons to add chocolate to the Valentine's Day mix.
"I don't see why we should deny ourselves of this wonderfully delicious sweet," says Stuart, Fla., dietitian Christina Cantone. "It really has some very nice properties."
Key among them is oleic acid, which makes up one-third of the fat content of chocolate, according to the American Dietetic Association.
Found also in olive oil, this monounsaturated fat has been shown to raise levels of good cholesterol and reduce the risk of clogged arteries, while at the same time lowering bad cholesterol that damages arteries.
And German researchers found more sweet news: dark chocolate could lower blood pressure. Their study was small _ only 13 subjects _ but in the six patients who ate 3-ounce dark-chocolate bars every day, systolic blood pressure dropped an average of five points.
Systolic blood pressure represents the maximum pressure exerted when the heart contracts.
The patients' diastolic blood pressure, which represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest, fell an average of almost two points. For comparison, the study's remaining patients ate white chocolate and experienced almost no change in blood pressure.
Scientists say polyphenols in chocolate might explain its ability to lower blood pressure. Found also in red wine, these antioxidants already have been shown to reduce blood pressure in animals.
And it doesn't take much chocolate to match the polyphenol power of red wine: A 1-1/2-ounce piece of the sweet has 205 milligrams of polyphenols, compared to 210 milligrams found in a 5-ounce glass of red wine, Cantone says.
"We've found that these antioxidants can stimulate the immune system," she says, "and can prevent clogging up of arteries."
Antioxidants also may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals, which can lead to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
But perhaps the most delicious discovery about chocolate came from a 1998 Harvard study of 8,000 subjects: Those who eat chocolate up to three times a month live almost a year longer than those who eat too much of the sweet stuff or steer clear of it altogether.
Although Cantone says there is nothing wrong with indulging in chocolate every once in a while, as on Valentine's Day, she warns against its not-so-sweet side: Chocolate is packed with calories that can tack on unwanted weight.
"So in other words," she says, "we can't be going overboard."
That said, try this rich recipe for a different way to indulge a chocolate craving ...
DARK CHOCOLATE FONDUE
Courtesy of the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee." This recipe yields six servings.
Chocolate bites ...
- Some historians say Napoleon carried chocolate on his military campaigns, snacking on the sweet when he needed a quick energy boost.
- Ten percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of iron is found in 1 ounce of baking chocolate or cocoa, according to Godiva Chocolatier.
- Chocolate contributes less than 2 percent of the fat in the American diet, according to the American Dietetic Association. The main sources of fat are meat, full-fat dairy products and fried foods.
- Chocolate really isn't so bad when it comes to caffeine. At least relatively speaking. One ounce of bittersweet or milk chocolate has as few as 5 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 150 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee, according to Godiva Chocolatier. It would take more than a dozen Hershey bars to equal the caffeine in one cup of coffee.