While chocolate may not first come to mind as a plant-based food, it originates from a fruit seed. The seed naturally has a range of nutritional components, such as copper, zinc, iron and fiber, and these get passed along to cocoa-based products like chocolate.
The raw cocoa seed also is naturally abundant in flavanols, which with careful handling also can make their way into chocolate.
These potent compounds are found in a wide range of plant-based foods, including tea, apples, grapes and red wine. In recent years, flavanols have been widely studied for their impact on health.
Chocolate, Flavanols, and Health
Emerging science from human studies provides support that the flavanols naturally present in cocoa may have important cardiovascular effects. For example, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified moderate evidence to support that modest consumption of dark chocolate or cocoa, as part of a balanced diet, is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
In addition, a number of intervention studies that lasted from one day to 18 weeks have demonstrated that eating flavanol-containing chocolate and cocoa products can improve the cardiovascular system’s function, make platelets less prone to form clots and improve markers of inflammation. In addition, research suggests that regularly eating products rich in cocoa flavanols can lower blood pressure. For more on these studies, see Taking Chocolate to Heart: For Pleasure and Health from the National Confectioners Association.
Because the science in this area is still emerging and the vast majority of studies have been conducted using special cocoa-powder-based products, it is not possible to make specific recommendations on how much chocolate or cocoa to eat, or what type.
While these studies do not prove that chocolate is a “health food” and do not give reasons to overeat it, they do lend support for the idea that by managing calories and diet, small amounts of favorite chocolate treats can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, heart-healthy diet and lifestyle.
Finding Chocolates with Flavanols
It’s a myth that darker chocolates always have the most flavanols. Dark chocolate does contain more chocolate liquor than milk chocolate; however, flavanol contents vary considerably depending on the bean’s journey through all stages of chocolate production.
Though flavanols are abundant in the fresh, raw cocoa seed, how the seed is handled from tree to finished chocolate matters a great deal. Through conventional handling and common manufacturing processes such as fermentation, drying, roasting and alkalization, the natural flavanol components are readily destroyed.
Because of these variables, the cacao percentage marked on a chocolate’s label isn’t a reliable guide to flavanol amounts. Though darker may be better for a deep chocolate taste, it does not guarantee a higher flavanol content.