What are the health benefits of Valentine’s Day chocolate?

Professor Elvira de Mejia's poses for a picture. Valentine's Day chocolates are displayed beside her headshot

Valentine’s Day is here and plenty of couples are celebrating, but for some, chocolate is their one true love. Elvira de Mejia, professor of food science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), investigates the health benefits of dark, white, milk, and even Valentine’s Day chocolates.

With Valentine’s Day on the way, let’s dive into chocolate! What are the healthy compounds in chocolate and how do they work in our bodies?

Chocolate contains more phenolic compounds — especially flavonoids (flavanols) such as catechin and epicatechin — than any other food. These compounds have very high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in our bodies. As we know, oxidative stress and inflammation are two of the main factors that affect the development of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases. So the main components in cocoa are responsible for mediating inflammation and oxidative stress.

What are the differences between dark, milk, and white chocolate?

What we call cocoa or cacao is the dry, fully fermented seed of the fruit that is later developed into chocolate. So chocolate is really a solid made by combining the products of cocoa liquor and cocoa butter, alongside lots of sugar. The percentages of cacao on chocolate packages represent the proportion of cocoa liquor. The type of chocolate consumed in the U.S. is mainly milk chocolate, which typically contains only 10 to 12% of cocoa liquor. Sweet, bittersweet, or dark chocolate should have at least 35% of cocoa liquor, which is where you start to see health benefits. White chocolate contains only cocoa butter, at least 20% by weight, but not cocoa liquor. This makes it less recommended for consumption since it doesn't contain those healthy compounds.

How much chocolate do we need to eat in order to see health benefits?

There are many studies showing chocolate’s health benefits related to diabetes, immune response, cardiovascular diseases, reduction of hypertension, and atherosclerosis. Several of these studies tested the effects of 30 to 50 grams of chocolate per day, but there have been reports of positive health responses for myocardial infarction with only 7.5 grams per day. Other studies claim one to three servings per month, or one to two servings per week, can significantly lower rates of heart failure hospitalization or death compared to no chocolate in the diet. As of now, however, there are no official recommendations for chocolate consumption.

So, when we consume Valentine’s Day chocolates, do they contain the same healthy compounds?

We have to be careful about the content of sugar and cocoa butter because of the calories and saturated fat they may include. Also, milk products added to chocolate, for example, can reduce the bioavailability of beneficial compounds when proteins and phenolic compounds interact with one another. It’s okay to enjoy Valentine’s Day chocolates, but as small amounts of a balanced diet! Avoid white or milk chocolate and try to eat dark chocolate whenever possible, so that you can reap some of the health benefits while having fun and celebrating Valentine’s Day.

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