Cocoa has been long been known for its good taste. But several epidemiological studies and some small prospective studies have shown that cocoa exerts beneficial cardiovascular effects. These beneficial effects seem to be mediated by its polyphenols, especially flavanols, a group of natural chemicals found primarily in fruits and vegetables.
The beneficial effects of cocoa include improvement in endothelial function (the lining of your artery wall), the reduction in platelet function (decreasing the chances of a blood clot), and the potentially beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood lipids.
But before you rush out to stock up on chocolate, know this: the manufacturing process to make chocolate from cocoa seeds significantly decreases the concentration of the flavanols. Milk chocolate in particular has the lowest flavanol content compared with cocoa powder and dark chocolate.
And many chocolate products contain milk or processed fats, e.g., palm oils. Your best bet – cocoa powder itself (especially raw cacao powder) because, unlike chocolate, it is low in sugar and fat.
And when you crave a chocolate fix – look for dark chocolate, particularly those with more than 80% cacao. Everything in moderation!
Tina Kaufman Ph.D. leads the Heart Disease Prevention program at the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute. Her specialty is exercise, nutrition and lifestyle modification. Within the preventive cardiology practice, she assesses cardiovascular risks, counsels and treats patients with specific dietary goals, and provides exercise prescriptions, smoking cessation, and blood pressure and cholesterol management.