Can dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day be helpful to your heart?

At this time of year, we’re faced with aisles and displays full of chocolate. Plain milk chocolate, white chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate-covered items — to indulge or not to indulge, that is the big question. Is it possible that some chocolate contains health benefits? Enough to justify a piece or two to celebrate Valentine’s Day?

As dietitians, we typically preach everything in moderation, and that motto applies to chocolate. But not all chocolate is created equally. According to the National Institutes of Health, cocoa beans may have a beneficial effect on decreasing risk for cardiovascular disease, as was found while studying the Guna people in Central America. The Guna have a high intake of cocoa beans — specifically the powder — and possess a significantly lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, relative to their weight and intake of salt.

The cocoa powder eaten by the Guna is made from the solid part of the cocoa bean, whereas chocolate is made from cocoa solids and cocoa butter, as well as milk, sugar and other added fats and sweeteners. Therefore chocolates as we know them may not contain as many cocoa solids and therefore could be less beneficial.

However, in recent years there have been some smaller-scale studies showing hope is not lost for chocolate lovers. Researchers in Australia conducted a study that showed intake of 30 – 1,080 mg of flavanols had a beneficial impact on blood pressure. Flavanols are the antioxidant and free-radical fighting compound found in the cocoa solids. Antioxidants have long been thought to play some role in the prevention of cancer. Dark chocolate contains more flavanols than light chocolate.

Larger and longer-term studies still need to be done, but from a nutritionist’s point of view, you can safely consume moderate portions of preferably dark chocolate and enjoy your Valentine’s Day treat. Ideally, the chocolate should be greater than 65 percent cocoa. Beware of added fats and sugars from ingredients like caramel and marshmallow. If you’re looking for a chocolate treat that fits into your healthy diet, reach for dark chocolate with healthier items such as strawberries or almonds, or pure dark chocolate on its own.