As we mark Valentine's Day and American Heart Month in February, it's a good time to be reminded that we no longer have feel guilty about eating a chocolate truffle or brownie. That's right, chocolate can be good for your sweetheart and for your heart.
Over the past 30 years researchers have been investigating the potential benefits of chocolate and current scientific evidence has melted away some of the misconceptions of chocolate as a junk food. In fact, cocoa and dark chocolate, which originate from plants containing phytonutrients, now are considered a functional food.
Functional foods are foods that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. In the case of chocolate phytonutrient compounds called flavonoids may help maintain cardiovascular health, improve insulin sensitivity and boost cognition. As a functional food, chocolate joins the ranks with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. And, there's more good news. Cocoa and dark chocolate contain vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamins A, C, E and the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid.
Yet these findings about chocolate's potential health benefits certainly are not a license to overindulge. Instead, it is a further indication that all foods can fit into and contribute to a healthy meal plan.
The degree to which a cocoa bean is processing determines the flavonoid content and potential healthfulness of the chocolate product; many cocoa powders, for instance, are heavily alkalized and that process can destroy those flavonoids. Flavonoid content in a serving of cocoa or chocolate can range from as low as 5 mg to as high as 150 mg. In the case of cocoa powder, the lighter color cocoa contains more antioxidant potential than the darker cocoa. Conversely, dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa contains a higher content of antioxidant for health benefits.
How much dark chocolate or cocoa should we consume to see health benefits? One study cites 1 to 2 tablespoons of natural cocoa or 20 grams (about ¾ ounce) dark chocolate per day for cardiovascular health benefits. One tablespoon of natural cocoa contains only 10 calories and even a little bit of fiber (2 grams). Three pieces of 70 percent cocoa (dark) chocolate contains 75 calories and is equivalent to 1 tablespoon cocoa. Milk chocolate adds calories and fat, and does not offer significant amounts of antioxidant flavonoids
Chocolate can be part of a healthy diet, and combining moderate amounts of chocolate with traditional heart-healthy foods is a great place to start. Dip bananas or strawberries into melted dark chocolate; toss semisweet chocolate pieces into trail mix or into your oatmeal; munch on dark chocolate covered soynuts (soynuts are another functional food), sip on hot chocolate made from natural cocoa, add cocoa to a chili recipe or try today's brownie recipe.
This is not your typical brownie; it's packed with heart-healthy ingredients that keeps calorie count low and its flavor profile high. It's sure to please your sweetheart and your sweet heart.
• Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian, is the author of "Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies" and is a national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.