Rejoice chocolate lovers. This decadent treat is actually good for your heart and cardiovascular system. Chocolate comes from the cacao bean, and its cultivation can be traced back thousands of years. The indigenous Kuna Indian population of the San Blas Islands of Panama never get high blood pressure, and they enjoy five cups of cocoa every day. However when they relocate to mainland Panama and change their diet habits, their blood pressure shoots up. The difference between the indigenous Kuna and their urban counterparts certainly is not genetics, but rather their eating habits. Modern science is also revealing the same thing. In fact in multiple scientific studies, dark chocolate has been shown to reduce blood pressure in people with elevated blood pressure.
Where Chocolate Comes From
The cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) is a small tropical tree that produces cacao pods. The pods are cracked open to release the seeds (cacao beans) which are then fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted. Then the bean’s outer layer is removed leaving the meat of the beans (nibs). The cacao nibs are then ground into a dark brown paste called cacao paste. Cacao butter, which is mostly fat, is then removed from the cacao paste at low temperature, and the rest of the fruit (cacao solids) is then ground into cacao powder. Cacao solids are high in a polyphenol antioxidant called flavonoids which have been shown to lower blood pressure. Your best bet is ingesting mostly the cacao solids, which are low in calories and virtually fat-free.
Cocoa powder is produced similarly to cacao powder, except it is processed at higher temperatures. It still retains a large amount of antioxidants and is still excellent for your blood pressure, especially natural unsweetened cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is also generally less expensive than cacao powder.
Chocolate is a confection made of cacao solids, cacao butter, sugar, and sometimes milk, formed into a solid food product. Because flavonoids are bitter, some chocolate manufacturers remove many of them and add sugar and milk to enhance flavor.
Dark chocolate has a high content of nonfat cacao solids and flavonoids. “Dutching” or alkalization of cacao is a process that makes the chocolate taste milder but removes almost all of the flavonoids. So you want avoid “Dutched” cacao. Since the level of cacao solids is the main factor in determining the chocolate’s antioxidant power, it is no surprise that cacao powder (ground cacao solids) has the most antioxidants followed by natural unsweetened cocoa powder, baking chocolates, dark chocolates, and semisweet chocolate baking chips. Milk chocolates and chocolate syrups contain the fewest flavonoids.
The front of the chocolate packages usually list the percentage of cacao solids (or cacao mass). Have fun sampling different dark chocolate products but beware of imposters such as white chocolate, hot chocolate mixes, chocolate syrups, and milk chocolate bars, all of which are low in flavonoids.
It is best to consume chocolate concoctions made from cacao powder or natural unsweetened cocoa powder. Make sure the cocoa powder has not been produced using the Dutch processing method. If a quick inspection of the ingredients list shows the word “alkali,” don’t buy it.
Large-scale observational studies: Several studies of thousands of people show an association between eating chocolate and lower blood pressure. One such large observational study conducted in Germany followed the diet and health habits of about twenty thousand Germans for ten years. Statistical analysis revealed that people who ate a little chocolate (about one square) a day cut their risk of heart attack or stroke by 39 percent. A recent meta-analysis combined data from seven large-scale observational studies (involving more than a hundred thousand people) came to a similar conclusion.
Randomized clinical trials: A number of randomized clinical trials prove that eating dark chocolate does indeed cause a reduction in blood pressure. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers tested the effects on blood pressure of eating a small daily amount of dark chocolate, using 44 men and women with prehypertension (not taking medication), over a period of eighteen weeks. Subjects were divided into two groups. One group consumed a 30-calorie, 6.3 g piece of high-flavonoid dark chocolate. The other group consumed a 30-calorie, 5.6 g dose of flavonoid-free white chocolate daily. At the end of the study, those who ate the dark chocolate had a reduction in blood pressure of 2.9/1.9 mm Hg. In contrast, those who ate the white chocolate had no change in blood pressure.
The top ranked heart clinic in the U.S., the Cleveland Clinic, recommends one ounce (or 28 g) of dark chocolate daily to lower blood pressure. This amounts to around 115 calories. Look for dark chocolates that contains at least 70% cacao. Chocolate lovers should offset the additional calories from chocolate by decreasing calorie elsewhere in their diet. Even better, you may want to consume cacao powder (or cocoa powder) which has less than 24 calories per tablespoon.
Putting it into Practice
- You can use cacao powder interchangeably with cocoa powder in baking recipes, smoothies, shakes, oatmeal, cookies, or even stir them into your coffee for a homemade mocha. If you want more nutrients, you may want to choose cacao powder.
- Enjoy up to one ounce (28 g) of dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao) with a cup of tea.
- Try a daily cup of steaming decadent hot chocolate using a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder for a heart-healthy and blood pressure-lowering treat.
- Try baking with unsweetened baking chocolate squares.