For the love of chocolate

By Alfred Casale - To Your Health

My health system is working with a company that’s trying to see if more tightly managing heart function during operations is associated with improved results. The teams from the systems that are participating and representatives of the company met in Boston on Saturday to review progress. This type of investigation, along with a commitment to educating the next generation of providers complements the primary purpose of our enterprise, taking great care of the medical needs of our community.

When my daughter Kate heard I’d be in Boston she informed me that I was required to proceed to Chatham on Cape Cod, where we’ve vacationed for the last 25 years or so, and stop at The Chatham Candy Manor. This iconic shop on Chatham’s main street is, to Kate, her best friend for life Karen and now, their four daughters, the epicenter of chocolate in the known universe.

With Valentine’s day around the corner, I happily accepted my orders. Quite literally, they each texted me their orders.

Now we all know that the heart-shaped box of chocolates is a Valentine’s Day must. Each delicately curated nugget of tasteful bliss may be packed with a surprise: ganache, nougat, jelly, nuts, caramel, even the prized cherry, or solid chocolate for the purist. Research has shown that certain chocolates can pack a nutritional punch and other health benefits. So when you’re shopping for Valentine’s Day gifts this week, which treat do you pick?

First, a quick lesson about chocolate:

Chocolate is made from the fruits of the cacao tree, which grow in tropical climates closest to the equator. Each cacao fruit pod contains 30-50 cacao (or cocoa) beans, which are harvested and subsequently dried and roasted to start the process of making chocolate.

The main source of fat in the bean is cocoa butter, which is extracted separately and added in varying amounts to the final chocolate product to give it a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. When the beans are ground, and the butter is extracted, what’s left of the solid beans is ground into cocoa solids/ powder.

Different combinations of cocoa butter, solids/powder, along with sugar and milk create the various types of chocolate we are familiar with today, including the indulgent chocolates at Valentine’s Day.

See, I was paying attention when we took the Hershey factory tour!

Milk chocolate contains less cocoa solids and more added dairy. Dark chocolate (or bittersweet) contains higher amounts of cocoa solids.

What are the nutritional benefits, you ask?

Cocoa powder/solids are rich in fiber, as well as some vitamins and trace minerals such as potassium, zinc, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper. It is also high in compounds called polyphenols and flavonoids.

Polyphenols are antioxidants naturally found in plants, fruits, vegetables, tea, and wine. They have been linked to reduction of inflammation levels, increasing blood flow, and lowering blood pressure.

Flavonoids are naturally found in fruits, vegetables, grains, plant roots and stems, tea and wine. Studies have linked them with having anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects. Characteristics good for your heart. Dark chocolate in particular is a great source of flavanols.

Since bittersweet chocolate contains higher amounts of cocoa, it is naturally higher in all these beneficial compounds. Look for at least 60 percent cocoa content to reap any kind of nutritional benefits.

Although it can contain healthful benefits, it is still a high-fat and high-calorie food. One ounce of dark chocolate that contains 60 percent to 69 percent of pure cocoa provides 162 kcal, 11 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 15 g carbohydrates, and 2 g protein. Additionally, it contains a significant amount of added sugar.

Chocolate can certainly be enjoyed as a part of a healthful diet but moderation is key — up to 1 ounce a day is plenty.

To maximize enjoyment and nutrition, try pairing a piece of dark chocolate with some fresh fruit, such as strawberries or blueberries. Adding a few whole-grain pretzels or a couple of nuts such as almonds or peanuts turns a treat into a more well-rounded snack.

To reap the benefits of cocoa and the rich flavor of chocolate without any added fats or sugars, try adding unsweetened cocoa powder to your foods. Just one tablespoon of cocoa contains 5 to 8 percent of your daily fiber needs, and provides small amounts of iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Try mixing it to oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes or yogurt topped with fresh fruit.

Well, I’m trying my best to make a heart healthy diet exciting. Make that chocolate last, an ounce a day will do it.

Based on my purchases from the Candy Manor, every human being I’ll meet in the next week is covered for their chocolate fix for the rest of the year or so.

By Alfred Casale

To Your Health

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is associate chief medical officer for Geisinger and chair of the Geisinger Heart Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is associate chief medical officer for Geisinger and chair of the Geisinger Heart Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]