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Ask a Dietitian: Is Chocolate a Health Food?

February, the month of love, often includes the requisite chocolate gift. Typically packaged in a red heart shaped box, tens of thousands are exchanged on Valentine’s Day. As we indulge, we are hopeful for a redeeming quality to the subject of our addiction. But is there?

The history of chocolate begins in Mesoamerica approximately 4000 years ago. The cacao bean, considered a gift from the gods, was ground, mixed with chile, spices and cornmeal into a bitter, frothy beverage. The Maya (and later the Aztecs) drank cacao in this form for rituals and special occasions. The cacao bean was so treasured it was even used as currency. Not until the 16th century, with the arrival of the explorer Hernan Cortez of Spain into modern day Mexico was the cacao bean first taken back to Europe. There, sugar and cinnamon were added and later milk…and a love affair with chocolate as we know it spread through the world, arriving in the United States in the 18th century.

Observed Health Benefits

Observational studies by scientists have noted the possibility of health benefits from the flavanols, naturally occurring antioxidants. These may play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, arrhythmias , hypertension and memory loss by increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation. They may also improve insulin sensitivity, reducing risk of diabetes. An interesting epidemiological study of Kuna Indians in Panama notes rare incidences of hypertension; intake of cacao is significant at five or more cups daily.

However…

Chocolate, our beloved form of cacao, is high in calories from sugar and fat. One to two squares provides 150 to 170 calories. Additionally, the wide variety of processing methods of chocolate yield varying amounts of flavanols. Dark chocolate, which has a higher percentage of cacao solids (50 to 90%) provides more flavanols than milk chocolate, which contains 10 to 50%.

So this Valentine’s Day, enjoy that bit of dark chocolate. Consider it a precious treat to be savored rather than a snack to be eaten by the handful. You can be part of a 4000 year old venerated tradition!

Rina Jordan is Ogden Clinic’s Registered Dietitian. She sees patients in Ogden, South Ogden, and Roy. To learn more about Rina’s nutrition services or schedule a visit, call (801) 475-3000.

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