Why is chocolate a beloved treat on a holiday that celebrates love? Chocolate not only elevates our mood and warms our heart, it is biochemically beneficial to both our cardiovascular well-being and our brain function via the symbiotic heart-brain axis. Inside our heart is a “heart brain,” a tiny center of neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins, just like in the head’s brain, and coordinated by the nervous system. Areas of the brain regulate the heart, and the heart is a key communicator to the brain. Chocolate seems to benefit both!

Obviously, I’m talking about chocolate that actually contains high levels of cacao vs. most mass-market chocolate tainted with additives, coloring and high amounts of refined sugars (that don’t satisfy and cause us to crave more). To get the most out of your chocolate choices, read labels and look for high cacao content, ingredients you recognize and ethical/fair trade sourcing.

Besides low environmental impact, we want chocolate high in nutrients. Here’s the breakdown:

“Natural” cocoa powder, used primarily in baking, is acidic, bitter and derived from roasted beans. It’s designed to react with baking soda in recipes. “Dutch” cocoa powder removes the acidity, making alkalized (neutral) baking cocoa that doesn’t react with baking soda. Both forms of baking cocoa powders are heated during processing, which causes loss of potent antioxidants, enzymes and nutrients.

“Dark” chocolate is classified as cocoa without milk, though there are various accepted percentages of roasted cacao content. A higher percentage of cacao constitutes a more bitter flavor, more nutrients and less sugar. Typically, dark chocolate does contain added sugars and flavorings. However, 99 percent of commercial chocolate, including milk chocolate, contains 22 percent or less of cacao.

“Raw” cacao is touted as the purest form of chocolate, derived from the whole, fermented cacao bean. The definition of raw is uncertain, as there are no “raw” temperature standards—and because beans are primarily grown in Third World countries lacking quality equipment and oversight. Nonetheless, “raw” cacao appears to offer more fiber, protein, fats and micronutrients than roasted cocoa, including 129 percent more iron, 149 percent more magnesium and 136 percent more potassium. Cacao is one of the richest sources of both antioxidants and phytochemicals (specifically flavanols) and contains living enzymes, which are lost or reduced during high heating processes in other chocolate. Some raw cacao “bars” and “treats” also contain added sugars, which may or may not be raw.

Cacao is acclaimed for its flavanols—plant properties that support heart health by increasing nitric oxide, reducing inflammation and improving blood flow, and the antioxidants improve lipid profiles by lowering LDL3. Chocolate consumption has also been associated with reduced coronary heart disease, risk of heart failure, stroke incidence and stroke mortality. Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, and global chocolate sales approximate $83 billion to $98 billion each year—some folks suggest that corporations fund the investigation of chocolate as a functional food.

I’m a curious skeptic: I love chocolate and frequently recommend it to clients, cautioning about quality, form, sourcing and moderation. Chocolate is high in protein, fats, fiber, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium and zinc, though you’d have to eat 3.5 ounces (an entire bar!) to reap the therapeutic heart benefits touted in science journals.

As we spread love, enjoy and share good quality, pure chocolate. Heart-healthy or no, informed choices make your heart feel good!

Jamie Truppi, MSN, is an integrative nutritionist focusing on functional foods and family wellness.

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