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The health benefits of dark chocolate

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Q: I keep hearing about the health benefits of dark chocolate. Is this scientific, or wishful thinking?

A: Dark chocolate, defined as 70 percent or greater cocoa mass, is indeed a little known superfood. Cocoa (known taxonomically as Theobroma cacao L.) is high in antioxidants called flavonoids. The specific group of these molecules, as found in dark chocolate, is among the most potent antioxidants in vivo; that is, when consumed by humans or in animal studies.

In studies, researchers feed subjects a set amount of chocolate and then draw blood samples to measure changes in actual antioxidant capacity in the blood. Measured in this way, the antioxidant capacity of dark chocolate rivals foods such as berries and fruits.

Dark chocolate possesses a host of intriguing metabolic benefits, including lowering blood glucose, raising HDL (good) cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, preventing cholesterol oxidation (which is thought to contribute to atherosclerosis), and improving vascular function. Theobromine, another component in dark chocolate, is thought to be responsible for reducing the “stickiness” of blood, otherwise known as platelet aggregation, thereby reducing the risk of blood clot formation.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the health benefits of dark chocolate may include boosting mood. Studies have shown that consumption of flavonol-rich dark chocolate blunted the stress response, including the production of inflammatory cytokines and stress hormones, in men undergoing acute psychosocial stress. Another study found that consumption of cocoa polyphenols significantly improved mood, with subjects reporting improved “calmness” and “contentedness.”

Finally, keep in mind that although dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, it is also rich in calories: 30 g, (about three squares) of a well-known brand of dark chocolate containing 70 percent cocoa mass, contains 180 calories! Enjoy this superfood in moderation.

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