Centuries ago, Central and South Americans knew there was goodness in the cacao bean. They considered it a luxury. The Aztecs used it for currency.
Today, people around the world consider chocolate a lavish treat. We've all heard that dark chocolate is good for us and, in moderation, can be a heart-healthy addition to the diet.
First, a little bit about dark chocolate. Dark chocolate's main ingredient derives from cacao, the bean-like seed that contains flavonoids and resvertatrol.
Flavonoids are plant-based compounds with antioxidant properties also found in fruits, tea and soybeans. Antioxidants are important because they protect cells from damage caused by free radicals — unstable molecules created through normal bodily processes and exposure to environmental contaminants.
Resvertatrol is another antioxidant also found in grapes and red wine, which have heart-protective effects.
Dark chocolate contains fat, including monosaturated fat, which is the good kind. However, it has some saturated fat, which we should limit in diets. Dark chocolate may have about 12 grams of saturated fat per 40-gram serving. This is why only a moderate amount is recommended. The less milk solids in the chocolate, the less saturated fat.
According to a study in the Cochrane Library, eating 30 to 1080 milligrams of flavanols in 3 to 100 grams of chocolate each day lowered blood pressure on average by 2 to 3 mmHg.
Researchers suggest that it is instrumental in keeping people lean by affecting metabolism.
But don't pile several chocolate bars into a shopping cart. Not all chocolate is created equal. When choosing dark chocolate, look for a greater proportion of cacao (chocolate liquor) and cocoa butter to sugar. Dark chocolate that is 70 percent or higher of cacao has at least 53.5 milligrams of flavonoids, compared to only 14 grams in milk chocolate.
If you want the pure stuff, choose dark chocolate without added milk solids and artificial flavors.
Here is how a milk chocolate bar stacks up against a dark chocolate bar:
A serving of a Lindt 70 percent cacao bar — four squares — has 250 calories, 19 grams of fat, including 12 grams of saturated fat and 12 grams of sugar. Its ingredients are chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, soya lecithin (an emulsifier) and bourbon vanilla beans.
A Hershey's milk chocolate bar — 43 grams — has 210 calories, 13 grams of fat including 8 grams of saturated fat and 24 grams of sugar. Its ingredients are sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, lactose, milk fat, soy lecithin, PGRP, emulsifier, vanillin and artificial color.
The dark chocolate bar, while it has more fat and calories, offers more antioxidants and fewer fillers. To decide how often and which kind of chocolate would be ideal for a treat, consult with a doctor or dietitian.
Health by chocolate
Do: Look for chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa
Avoid: Added milk solids, oils or artificial flavors