News | Published February 7, 2012 | Written by Joeleen Stocker, MS, RD, LDN

Good News: Don’t Cast Aside Your Box of Chocolates this Valentine’s Day!

If your valentine gives you a box of chocolate this Valentine's Day, eat your heart out! Chocolate has been a recent topic of conversation because of emerging research investigating its health benefits.

At the conclusion of 2011, a PubMed search on cocoa, chocolate and health reveals over 300 published studies. Interestingly, about half of these studies have been published within the past five years. This recent research has provided the evidence for many independent reviews and meta-analyses that are now supporting that natural cocoa and chocolate may have beneficial effects for those at risk for cardiovascular disease.

The cocoa bean contains a nutrient called flavonoids. Flavonoids have an antioxidant effect and can protect against cell damage and environmental toxins.

Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.

It's important to know that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols.

Cocoa naturally has a very strong, bitter taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost.

Most store-bought chocolates are highly processed. It was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels of flavanols, however recent research indicates this may not be true depending on how the chocolate was processed. The good news is that most major chocolate manufacturers are developing ways to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates. But for now, your best choices are likely dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.

So, for now, enjoy moderate portions of chocolate (1 ounce serving) a few times per week, and don't forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, berries, grapes, teas, onions and other colorful fruits and vegetables.