Is chocolate healthy? The depends on what you mean by chocolate. And what you mean by healthy.

With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, you may be planning to get something sweet for someone special. Traditionally, this typically includes a box of chocolates. While candy isn’t really a healthy option, eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some health benefits.

The idea that chocolate may be healthy is no doubt welcome news for chocoholics. But it may leave you wondering if eating chocolate really is healthy. The answer depends on what you mean by chocolate and what you mean by healthy.

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First, it is worth understanding what it is about chocolate that may promote health. The health benefits of chocolate have to do with the fact that it comes from a plant, the cacao tree. Like many plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, chocolate contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have health benefits. Indeed, chocolate does contain antioxidant flavonoids that have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. These flavonoids are also found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as coffee, tea, and wine. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress.

The chocolate that we eat contains two main components from the cacao plant, cocoa and cocoa butter, in addition to added sugar and other ingredients. Cocoa is the non-fat component of the cocoa bean and cocoa butter is mostly fat. The flavonoids are found in the cocoa, so chocolate that is richer in cocoa, like dark chocolate, contains more of these beneficial compounds. For example, dark chocolate may contain 70% cocoa, compared to 25% cocoa in milk chocolate. These flavonoids also give dark (sometimes called semi-sweet) chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. This is also because dark chocolate may contain less sugar than milk chocolate, but this isn’t always true.

Milk chocolate contains more of the cacao butter along with other additives, usually milk. White chocolate is made exclusively from the cocoa butter and contains no cocoa, so none of the beneficial phytochemicals. Even though the fat in cocoa butter is mostly healthier monounsaturated and saturated fats, it still contains calories. Sugar, milk, and other ingredients also add calories, so chocolate is certainly something to enjoy in moderation.

One thing to keep in mind is that some of the research into the health benefits of chocolate was conducted in animals, not humans. And some of the research in humans used isolated extracts from the cacao plant, not chocolate. And when subjects were given chocolate it was dark chocolate that is high in cacao. The point is that the evidence for chocolate being healthy was not based on eating more Hershey’s bars!

But given the potential benefits, eating dark chocolate instead of other sweets such as cakes, cookies, and other candy is probably a good idea. Simply eating more chocolate in addition to other sweets will not make you any healthier, and the extra calories could lead to weight gain. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough.

Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, so a serving of berries, for example, is a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include dark chocolate as a part of a diet that includes real food balanced by daily physical activity.

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