Chocolate, which is derived from the cacao plant, contains antioxidants called flavonoids. Also found in red wine, tea and grapefruit, these compounds may help protect against or slow heart disease by preventing fat-like substances (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) in the bloodstream from oxidizing and forming plaque that can build up and block arteries. To reap such health benefits, choose chocolate that contains the most flavonoids, like natural cocoa powder (not Dutch cocoa), unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips.
Another positive characteristic of chocolate is the kind of saturated fat it contains, stearic acid. Studies have shown that stearic acid has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels, while other saturated fatty acids can elevate cholesterol. Additionally, some researchers have found evidence that the stearic acid in chocolate may decrease systolic blood pressure (the first number of a blood pressure reading) and lower insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes.
Keep in mind, however, that the health advantages of chocolate don’t necessarily give you the green light to eat as much as possible. It can be tricky to identify which varieties have the most flavonoids and the fewest types of added fat (such as milk fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, coconut oil or palm oil). The amount of flavonoids in chocolate may vary according to the cocoa beans used, how they were processed and how the product was stored or handled. The added fats and calories of white chocolate, chocolate syrup or milk chocolate, coupled with low levels of flavonoids, will often outweigh any benefits you might have gained from the antioxidants.
- Aim to bake with natural cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate.
- Select dark or semisweet chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa (sometimes listed as “cacao”) for eating.
- Limit yourself to an ounce or two for a better flavonoid-to-calorie ratio!