With Halloween soon approaching, this month’s mascot seems to be candy. Halloween comes in as one of the top holidays (along with Easter) in terms of chocolate consumption in the United States, and recently chocolate has been in the news as select research studies have concluded dark 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 serve as plant protectors — meaning they can shield plans from environmental toxins and repair damage. 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.

Flavanols are also found in cranberries, apples, onions and red wine; not all kinds of chocolate contain a significant amount of flavanols.

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 are highly processed and are in the form of milk chocolate. 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.

The good news is most chocolate companies are seeking ways to process chocolate effectively while maintaining the flavanols.

With studies pointing towards the health benefits of chocolate, more research is needed in this area. There is no established serving size of chocolate directly linked to cardiovascular benefits; however, enjoying a small piece of chocolate from time to time will not hurt ... especially this month!

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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