Cocoa, from which we make that wonderful treat known as chocolate, has some powerful properties, but is helping your health one of them?

Chocolate is one of the world’s favorite treats. It is especially popular in North America and Western Europe. Americans alone gobbled down over 3 billion pounds of chocolate last year, and yes, that is billion with a “B”. The most chocolate indulgers are the Swiss and Austrians, whose citizens average over 20lbs per person each year. Is that the secret to their skiing prowess?

That’s some pretty healthy chocolate consumption, but is chocolate actually bad for your health? Several studies indicate that it may actually be good for you. The latest was just published in the European Cardiology Society’s European Heart Journal two days ago. The roughly 8 year long study of German adults indicates that moderate chocolate consumption can have a positive effect on your cardiovascular health.

Study participants who consumed the most chocolate (an average of about 1/4oz per day) had the lowest risk of heart disease. The study concluded that “Chocolate consumption appears to lower CVD risk, in part through reducing BP. “ If only 1/4oz per day is the highest average chocolate consumption among those tested, it would seem that most study participants really aren’t chocolate lovers, are they?

An earlier study, published in the journal Hypertension in 2005, revealed much the same results. In that study, participants who ate a bar of dark chocolate every morning for two weeks had improved blood pressure measurements.

A few years before that, in 2002, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was being conducted by Mary Engler, PhD RN, a professor of physiological nursing at the University of Calfornia – San Francisco. It was published in the June, 2005 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. This study too demonstrated that daily doses of dark chocolate, administered over a 2 week period, had a positive effect on cardio vascular health.

You know what these studies say to me? They say that it’s not too difficult to get people to sign up for a study where they get to eat chocolate every day.

Why does it work? Dark chocolate contains these cool, little plant derived things called flavonoids. Flavonoids are plant compounds that help protect the plants. Fortunately for us, they work their magic on humans, too. Flavonoids are strong antioxidants and happen to be found in significant quantities in cocoa powder. Dark chocolate is less refined than milk chocolate, so contains a far greater amount of flavonoids, which are all but eliminated by processing.

This is another reason to eat whole, minimally processed foods. If you can choke down pure, unsweetened cocoa powder, go for it! Most people however, can’t force themselves to eat pure cocoa powder, it’s just too bitter. The next best thing is a dark chocolate bar, which is less processed than milk chocolate bars.

Studies indicate that bars with at least 70% cocoa content are best for helping the cardio vascular system. It is difficult to find flavonoid quantities listed on labels. You will, however, find them on Dove Dark Chocolate bars, which have roughly 50-% more flavonoids than the bars used in the UCF study. The Dove Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate bar has 71% cocoa content, so it squeaks past the experts recommendations.

This doesn’t mean you should run out and start horking down chocolate. Remember that sugar is still the enemy of weight loss, and powering down the chocolate will add to your waistline. The aforementioned Dove bar is 200 calories, if you have ½ a bar every morning, you’ll get your flavonoids, but you’ll have to drop that 100 somewhere else. In addition, the bar has 10 grams of saturated fat, so eating one will cost you a lean sirloin burger somewhere down the line, too.

So, studies indicate that chocolate is not bad for your health. Have your chocolate, but make it dark, and try to hold yourself to ½ a bar per day.