While most of us associate Valentine’s Day with a plethora of heart shaped boxes of chocolate and chocolate covered strawberries, Easter is actually the holiday where crème- filled chocolate eggs and cute chocolate rabbits draw us in the most with our tastebuds and our wallets.

Recently, chocolate has been in the news because some studies have concluded chocolate can help protect the cardiovascular system.

Researchers believe the cocoa bean is comprised of flavonoids, which are a type of plant nutrient found in many fruits and vegetables as well. Flavonoids are known for their antioxidant benefits, similar to Vitamin C and Vitamin E; antioxidants help the body’s cells to fight damage caused by free radicals in our environment.

The type of flavonoids found in cocoa and chocolate are called flavanols. Studies show these flavanols have additional benefits to the cardiovascular system as well-such as lowering blood pressure, improving circulation and combatting blood clots.

To date, there is no established serving size of chocolate directly linked to cardiovascular benefits.

Cocoa’s strong, bitter taste comes from the flavanols. To reduce the bitter taste, cocoa is processed through fermentation, alkalizing and/or roasting which loses the flavanols and reduces the health benefits.

While it was once thought all dark chocolate contained high levels of flavanols, much depends on how the dark chocolate was processed.

Caramel-nut covered dark chocolate should not be viewed as a “health food”—while the dark chocolate itself may be loaded with flavanols, the extra ingredients add fat and calories thus outweighing the benefits.

Most commercial chocolates, such as milk chocolate rabbits and eggs, are highly processed, thus losing their nutritional appeal.

Milk chocolate is often loaded with fat and sugar to offer more flavor and palatability; this sweeter taste appeals to more people, in general, than the dark chocolate variety.

While selected studies point toward the health benefits of chocolate, more research is needed in this area.

The good news is most chocolate companies are seeking ways to process chocolate effectively while maintaining the flavanols, thus retaining some of the nutritional benefit for consumers.

Carey Stites is a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor and a Registered Dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition. Carey is currently the Registered Dietitian working with Wellstone in Harker Heights. Contact her at carey.stites@smchh.org.

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