It’s the season of love during Valentine’s day. A time for romance. For greeting cards. For heart-shaped decorations. And for chocolate. Since antiquity, couples have called on the memory of St. Valentine to profess their love for one another, and perhaps no other gift better represents those emotions than a box of chocolates. Is it possible, though, that those very same romantic confections could be good for the heart?
For the last fifteen years, tantalizing trials in medical literature have suggested that routine chocolate consumption has positive health benefits. From better blood flow to smoother platelets and from higher nitric oxide production to lower blood pressure, these studies have credited the sticky fingerprint of chocolate consumption as the reason for improvement in cardiac conditions. Harder to prove, however, is a true cause and effect relationship for chocolate and the heart. Three years ago, groups of investigators from Boston to Birmingham published the results of one trial sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. They concluded that chocolate helps the heart, and the reason can be boiled down to one word: flavonoids.
To understand chocolate’s benefit, investigators looked at patient data from the early 1990’s collected for the Family Heart Study. With the benefit of analyzing this information 15 years later, these scientists could identify trends in heart disease. Taking a dietary history of 4,790 men and women, the study coordinators divided the data between patients at high-risk for coronary heart disease and those at normal risk. They asked a simple question: “In the past year, how often did you consume chocolate bars or pieces?” Patients could select the frequency of their chocolate consumption from multiple choice answers that ranged from “more than six per day” to “almost never.” And to make sure they could tease out the effects of chocolate in the diet, the same questionnaire asked how often the study patients consumed candy without chocolate.
At first blush, the results seemed surprising.
Those with the highest weekly consumption of chocolate had the lowest risk for heart disease. However, those who fed their sweet tooth with non-chocolate containing candies almost doubled their risk of heart disease.
What accounts for the difference? Flavonoids.
Nutritionists have long identified the beneficial effects of flavonoids, which are a nutritional subset of polyphenols. A casual glance in the kitchen cupboard finds that the foods stuffed with polyphenols (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts) help lower the incidence of coronary heart disease and stroke. Indeed, much has been written about the cardiac benefits of more romantic flavonoid food items, such as red wine, attributing the heart-healthy benefits to polyphenols. When investigators turned their attention to the inside of a box of chocolates, they found the highest flavonoid content in dark chocolate.
To be clear, a man (or woman) cannot live on chocolate alone. A heart-healthy diet and dedicated exercise are twin pillars that support overall health. Furthermore, the authors of this study take pains to point out that not all candy is created equal. Even the mouth-watering morsels of milk chocolate pale in cardiac comparison to the flavonoid-rich squares of dark chocolate. But these results fly in the face of conventional wisdom that a healthy diet means giving up sweets. This Valentine’s Day, know that there may be more than one reason that a box of chocolates is shaped like a heart.