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Mission: Nutrition

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The Sweet Truth about Dark Chocolate

Posted by Lisa Peterson -

In the days leading up to Valentine's Day, 58 million pounds of chocolate are purchased in the United States. Chocolate, considered the "food of the gods" to the Aztecs because of its thought aphrodisiac qualities, has been associated with Valentine's Day since the mid-1800s. Even though research shows chocolate's effect on sexual arousal might be more psychological than physiological, dark chocolate is the better Valentine's Day candy choice for heart health.

What in Dark Chocolate is healthy?

Cocoa beans—actually seed from the cacao tree used to make chocolate, contain a plant phytochemical called flavanols, a subclass of flavonoids known for their antioxidant properties. Flavanols are also found in teas, red wine, blueberries, and other plant-based food. Research consistently shows individuals who consume foods containing higher levels of flavanols, such as dark chocolate, have shown to have:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood cholesterol in healthy adults
  • Reduction in in the formation of blood clots
  • Improved blood flow to the brain and heart
  • Increased insulin resistance-a indicator for diabetes
  • Better immune function in overweight adults

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has also endorsed the modest consumption of dark chocolate or cocoa as a part of a well-balanced diet to improve cardiovascular health.

Studies on the effects of cocoa flavanols are on-going. Research on mood and chocolate consumption have shown middle-aged adults who consumed cocoa flavanols had a reduction in anxiety and an overall positive disposition. Other emerging research has also associated cocoa flavanols with improvement of memory and thinking function in older adults.

Dark Chocolate vs. Milk Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains more cocoa flavanols than milk chocolate, giving this decadent treat more of a bitter taste. How much more cocoa flavanols does dark chocolate contain? Well, the amount varies between chocolate makers. The label of your favorite chocolate bar indicates the amount of cocoa, from the cocoa bean, present. If a chocolate bar is labeled 80% cocoa that means the other 20% contains sugar, vanilla, and other added ingredients. When chocolate shopping search for chocolate with the higher amounts of flavanols and read the nutrition label. Aim for products where sugar is not the first ingredient listed.

Chocolate Caution

With the continuous health benefits of dark chocolate emerging, remember moderation is still key. Chocolate can be high in calories and fat. Too much chocolate can mask the health benefits and do more harm than good. Eat mindfully when consuming chocolate and think of it as a treat rather than focusing on a guilty indulgence. Avoid feeling guilty about eating chocolate and enjoy the delicious treat!

Try a few of these tips recommended by the National Confectioners Association, in regards to chocolate consumption:

  • Mix cocoa powder with a small portion of water or greek yogurt and flavoring such as vanilla, orange, or hazelnut for a fruit dip
  • Combine cocoa powder, fruit (fresh/frozen), honey, milk/yogurt, and ice for a chocolate smoothie
  • Plan ahead with portion sizes. Buy a big bag of dark chocolate? Separate out servings into small baggies to help prevent overeating.
  • Eat a variety of flavor experiences with chocolate. Pair chocolate with fruit, pretzels, cheese, or other foods to add variety to your palate.
  • Eat chocolate slowly, and let yourself experience the complex flavors by savoring every bite.

Celebrate National Heart Month all through February and work to adopt a heart healthy lifestyle! For more quick nutrition, physical activity, or wellness tips follow me on twitter! Looking for upcoming programs? Visit our local extension website at:


Godman, Heidi. "Cocoa: A Sweet Treat for the Brain? - Harvard Health Blog."Harvard Health Blog RSS. Harvard Medical School, 05 Feb. 2015. Accessed 11 Feb. 2015. <>.

Hooper L, Kay C, Abdelhamid A, Kroon PA, Cohn JS, Rimm EB, Cassidy A. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 95(3):740-51

Nielsen: U.S. Consumers Show Their Love for Chocolate on Valentine's Day. "Press Room." The Nielsen Company, 02 Apr. 2009. Accessed 13 Feb. 2015. <>.

Pase MP, Scholey AB, Pipingas A, Kras M, Nolidin K, Gibbs A, Wesnes K, Stough C. Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebocontrolled trial. J Psychopharmacol. 2013;27(5):451-458.

Shrime MG, Bauer SR, McDonald AC, Chowdhury NH, Coltart CE, Ding EL. Flavonoid-rich cocoa consumption affects multiple cardiovascular risk factors in a meta-analysis of short-term studies. J Nutr. Nov 2011;141(11):1982-1988.

"Taking Chocolate to Heart: For Pleasure and Health."National Confectioners Association(2014): Accessed 11 Feb. 2015.

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