In time for Valentine’s Day: Chocolate for the health of it

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Lavish gifts of chocolate given during the month of February will melt nearly anyone’s heart. But, do not forget: chocolate can also be good for the heart, and other organs too.

“Though news of chocolate’s benefits aren’t new, scientific evidence continues to show a link between eating cocoa products and reduction of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, platelet aggregation and cholesterol levels,” said Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

Chocolate also may boost cognitive abilities, help improve memory and insulin sensitivity and increase blood flow to the brain according to Duitsman.

Flavanol

“At least some of these effects of chocolate are likely due to the high levels of flavanols, which, according to researchers, are potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” said Duitsman.

Check out all of Farm and Dairy’s chocolate recipes

Flavanol benefits for cardiovascular health are well established. Animal studies show a protective effect of long-term flavanol consumption on cognition and behavior, including age- and disease-related cognitive decline. A few human observational and intervention studies support these findings.

Flavanols are also present in other natural foods like grapes, nuts, apples and teas. The amount of flavanols in cocoa-based products depends on plant genetics, how the plant is harvested, how the cocoa is processed and how the end product is prepared. Over-processing can destroy flavanols.

Cocoa is key

Chocolate is prepared from cocoa beans which are roasted and ground. While cocoa is one of the richest sources of flavanols, it also contains other “feel good” compounds such as theobromine and caffeine. These two compounds have similar effects to generally improve alertness and psychomotor function.

“Much of the chocolate marketed and consumed is filled with sugar, milk and extra cocoa butter because this taste appeals to many people. But, as more non-cocoa ingredients are added, the healthy chemicals in chocolate become diluted — making some chocolate products more junk food than health food,” said Duitsman.

Good quality chocolate will have a high amount of cocoa. Researchers have recommended the greatest health benefits might be seen from an ounce or two of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) several times a week.

“When chocolate is that high in cocoa, it likely won’t contain as much sugar,” said Duitsman.

For more information on nutrition contact one of the following nutrition specialists: Dr. Lydia Kaume in Barton County, (417) 682-3579 or Dr. Pam Duitsman, in Greene County, (417) 881-8909. Information is also available online http://extension.missouri.edu.

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