Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. Research has shown flavanols act as an antioxidant, help lower blood pressure and prevent blood clotting, lower cholesterol, decrease inflammation and reduce insulin sensitivity. That's probably why some studies have shown eating dark chocolate is associated with less coronary heart disease.
Not All Chocolate Has Flavanols
But before you reach for a chocolate bar, you should know not all chocolate is created equally. And most cocoa or chocolate products don't contain the same amount of flavanols used in the research studies. The problem is with processing. Flavanols contribute a bitter taste to cocoa. The more chocolate is processed through roasting, alkalizing and fermentation, the less bitter it tastes and the more flavanols are depleted from the cocoa. Most commercial chocolate and cocoa is highly processed, although chocolate companies are continually trying to find ways of processing to keep the most flavanols in their products.
Cocoa powder, which is separated from the cocoa butter, contains no fat. So it is one of the best ways to include chocolate in your heart-healthy eating plan. Dark chocolate and especially milk chocolate are processed with large amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat and sugar, which are likely to cancel out positive effects on heart health from the flavanols.
White chocolate contains no cocoa or flavanols, since it contains only cocoa butter, or the fat from the cocoa bean.
Health benefits are not a reason to start eating chocolate. But if you want to enjoy chocolate, choose dark chocolate (usually the darker, the better) for the most flavanols and make sure the first ingredient listed is cocoa (not sugar).
Moderation Is Key
Since research hasn't identified the optimal amount of chocolate for heart health, eat it only in moderation: one or two small squares a day. But when you do, enjoy it all the more knowing you may be helping your heart. Just be sure to cut calories elsewhere to control weight.