There are chocolate apologists, and there are chocolate advocates. Chocolate apologists approach chocolate from a defensive point of view: Deep down, they consider it a vice, but they use scientific research demonstrating its virtues to justify their habit. Chocolate advocates like me, however, consider chocolate a bona fide health food, and actively seek out ways to include it in our diets for both the hedonic pleasure it provides as well as for its health benefits.
In honor of Valentine's Day, I've highlighted some of chocolate's most compelling attributes, annotated with suggestions for chocolatey gifts to suit all the people in your life who may benefit from cacao therapy.
1. Chocolate is health food for the heart. As I've written here previously, regular chocolate intake has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease -- including events like heart attack and stroke -- as well as with improvements in blood pressure. What's more: If you've got high cholesterol, the primary type of saturated fat in dark chocolate, called stearic acid, is unlikely to raise your LDL levels. Chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, a mineral that's essential to normal heart function. Research suggests that men with higher dietary intakes of magnesium have lower risk of coronary heart disease compared to those with lower intakes. The only word of caution related to chocolate and heart health relates to sugary milk chocolates, since high intake of added sugar has been linked to an increased risk of death from heart disease. When it comes to chocolate and health, the darker the chocolate, the better the chocolate.
If you've got a Valentine with high blood pressure, treat him or her to a bag of natural, no-sugar added cacao nibs!
2. Chocolate has lots of iron! Iron deficiency is the leading nutritional deficiency in the U.S., with toddlers and adolescent/adult females at particularly high risk. Sure, you can eat more iron-rich foods like beef chili or liver. But why not eat more chocolate, too? While exact iron content varies by type of chocolate, a reasonable rule of thumb is to assume about 1 milligram of iron per ounce of dark chocolate, which is about 6 percent of the recommended daily value. (The USDA's National Nutrient Database reports an even higher amount, but it seems somewhat inflated compared to other sources I consulted.) The darker the chocolate, the more iron it contains. Baking chocolate (5 milligrams of iron per one-ounce square) and cocoa powder (1 milligram of iron per 4 teaspoons) are even more concentrated sources of iron than ready-to-eat chocolate.
If you've got an anemic Valentine, bake him or her a batch of these chocolatey black bean brownies. By my calculation, each 150-calorie brownie (1/12th of recipe) has 1 milligram of iron, or 6 percent of the daily value -- assuming you make them with ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips. If you use iron-fortified oats, the iron content jumps to 2.6 milligrams per brownie, or 14 percent of the daily value. Serve with vitamin C-rich strawberries to help maximize absorption.
3. Chocolate is a particularly good vehicle for carrying probiotics. Probiotics are health-enhancing bacteria that populate the human gut. When taken in supplement form, they must remain alive throughout their journey into our inner digestive sanctum in order to confer a health benefit. Staying alive requires safe passage through the acid bath of the stomach and arrival in our large intestine -- a trip as arduous as it sounds. As it turns out, not all carriers are equally suited for shepherding these bacteria safely to the human gut. Chocolate, however, has been shown to be among the best delivery systems for supplemental probiotics. There are a handful of probiotic-fortified chocolates available on the market, though be aware that most contain highly-fermentable "prebiotics" like inulin or fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) that may cause gas and bloating in digestively sensitive folks, particularly at higher doses.
If you've got a Valentine on a quest for inner peace, try treating him or her to a bar of probiotic-fortified dark chocolate, like Attune Dark Chocolate Probiotic Bar.
[Read: Tending Your Inner Ecosystem.]
4. Chocolate is an athlete's secret weapon. Chocolate has a lot going for it when it comes to sports nutrition. Intense physical activity results in oxidative stress to the cells, and this stress is often implicated in muscle fatigue. But research is inconclusive regarding the benefits versus risks of taking antioxidants in supplement form to help offset this oxidative damage. Until that question is settled, an antioxidant-rich diet is likely a safer bet for athletes. As luck would have it, cocoa is a rich source of food-based antioxidants called flavonoids. These flavonoids may also help improve blood flow throughout the body -- an added bonus for athletes. Additionally, lowfat chocolate milk has been shown to contain the optimal ratio of carbohydrates to protein, making it the recovery drink of choice for many endurance athletes.
Got an athletic valentine? Treat him or her to a cup of homemade hot chocolate with this simple recipe. Use raw cocoa powder (sometimes marketed as cacao powder) for maximum antioxidant punch. Try a handheld milk frother to blend in the cocoa powder if needed.
Use raw cocoa powder (sometimes marketed as cacao powder) for maximum antioxidant punch. Try a handheld milk frother to blend in the cocoa powder if needed.
[Read: Best Heart-Healthy Diets .]
5. Eating chocolate in pregnancy may help protect against pre-eclampsia. Given what we know about chocolate's effect on blood vessel function and blood pressure, it's not surprising that higher chocolate intake -- particularly in the first and third trimesters -- has been associated with a decreased risk of developing pre-eclampsia, a dangerous type of hypertension that can occur as the result of pregnancy. Research suggests that five or more servings per week may be the therapeutic "dose," so to speak, so don't be shy, ladies!
Got a pregnant valentine? Give her an assortment of Super Dark bars from Vosges Haut-Chocolat. They may not offer a pickles-and-chocolate version, but at least one of their exotic chocolate combinations is sure to tap into an offbeat pregnancy craving.
[Read: The New Pregnancy Nutrition Rules.]
Note: The author has no material affiliation to any of the companies whose products are referenced in this article.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.