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Chocolate – particularly the dark kind – can be genuinely healthful

We celebrate Valentine’s Day this week and ‘tis the season for chocolate!

Hailed as a “heart-healthy food,” the dark stuff is very appropriate to discuss now as February is National Heart Month. So let’s take a brief peek into the health claims of chocolate and conclude with a finale of four recipes.

In the candy aisle at your grocery store you will find three types of chocolate: dark, milk and white. Technically speaking, white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all, as it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids. It melts like chocolate but is comprised of cocoa butter (the fat from the cocoa bean), milk and sugar. Dark chocolate is cocoa butter and cocoa solids (up to 80 percent of its weight) and is rather bitter. Milk chocolate contains less than 10 percent cocoa solids. Any bitter flavor present is masked with sugar and high fat milk.

The health benefits that we all love to tout as we open our foil-wrapped Dove or Hershey chocolates are actually only applicable to the dark chocolate. The benefits primarily come from the bioactive compounds, antioxidants and minerals it contains as well.

Those compounds are called flavonoids and are a subset of a larger group called polyphenols (I know, too many terms!). The deep, bitter flavor of dark chocolate actually comes from the flavonoids (which is why dark chocolate is better for you, because it contains more of them).

What makes these flavonoids so healthy is their effect on the cardiovascular system. Simply put, chocolate stimulates nitric oxide that stimulates your arteries to relax.

This is considered “cardio-protective,” since relaxed arteries decrease blood pressure. While the drop is not necessarily dramatic (or dangerous, for those also taking blood pressure-lowering medications), it is beneficial as we live in a world of chronic stress, inflammation and rampant cardiovascular disease. The little bursts of “vaso-relaxation,” typically affecting the two to three hours after ingesting the dark chocolate, can be of long-term benefit overall.

These heart-healthy effects of chocolate have been witnessed in healthy individuals as well as diabetics, those at risk for cardiovascular disease, and individuals over 50. Interestingly enough, while chocolate conveyed benefits to all test groups, the group over 50 responded the best. (Guess there are some benefits to aging!)

The “doses” of dark chocolate varied, but benefits were seen as low as 46 grams (which is roughly equivalent to four squares of baker’s chocolate found in grocery stores).

Chocolate’s flavonoids also convey benefits by stimulating a beneficial anti-inflammatory cascade and by providing high amounts of magnesium, zinc and iron.

I should mention that while chocolate is “good for you,” not all people tolerate it well. Chocolate contains caffeine, which some individuals are sensitive to (me, personally, being one of them). If you feel jittery or moody after eating dark chocolate, this may be your problem. Amounts vary, but there is roughly 40 to 50 milligrams of caffeine per serving for a chocolate bar and 8 to 20 mg. per tablespoon of cocoa powder.

So if you are going to eat a chocolate bar, go for one of the percentages of dark (40 – 80 percent). If you like to bake with powdered chocolate, then note that the “Dutch processed” chocolate commonly gracing most baking aisle has been processed with alkali. This significantly affects the antioxidant nutrients present.  Raw, unprocessed cocoa powder will have the highest value of nutrients.

Enjoy the recipes below for some healthier versions of chocolatey, household rites: fudge sauce chocolate chunks/chips, brownies and no-bake oatmeal cookies.

Three Ingredient  Chocolate Fudge Sauce


1/3 cup (50 g) pitted dates (i.e. measured once pitted)

1/2 cup (125 ml) milk (regular cow or almond/cashew milk)

1 oz. (15 g) unsweetened baking chocolate (or 1 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder)


Put dates and almond milk into a blender, blend together until smooth.

Pour into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, continue to cook whilst stirring over a low flame for 5-10 minutes, until thickened.

Remove from the heat, stir in the chocolate (or cocoa powder) until melted and incorporated.

Transfer to a sterilized glass jar. Serve warm, refrigerate and eat cold, or re-warm.

– Recipe courtesy of Izzy  Hossack, Top With Cinnamon blog

Homemade Chocolate Chunks


1/4 cup virgin coconut oil, melted

1 tbsp. pure maple syrup or liquid sweetener of choice

1/4 cup cocoa powder or unsweetened cocoa powder (or raw cacao powder)

Extracts, essential oils, add-ins of choice, optional


In a medium bowl, combine the coconut oil and maple syrup. Add the cocoa powder and stir until a thick sauce forms. If necessary, add more coconut oil for thinner consistency. Put in an “add-ins” now if using. My (Cathryn) personal favorite is 2-3 drops of peppermint essential oil (therapeutic grade)!

Transfer into your container of choice…candy mold, small glass dish. The original recipe suggests you use a resealable plastic bag and smush it into a bar shape.

Freeze until solid, at least 2 hours. Please do eat these responsibly and save some of the pan for others!

– Original recipe courtesy of Chocolate Covered Katie. Adaptations made by Dietitian Cathryn RDN

Healthy No-Bake Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies


1/4 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup butter

1/3 cup unsweetened almond butter (or peanut butter)

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup coconut sugar

3 tbsp. raw cacao powder (regular unsweetened cocoa powder is fine)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 tbsp. chia seeds

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1 cup gluten-free old-fashioned oats

1-2 drops peppermint extract – or – peppermint essential oil (This is optional. If using essential oils only use the kind that is designated as “therapeutic grade.” These are OK to take internally)


Bring to a boil the coconut oil, butter, honey, sugar and cac ao powder.

Stir constantly and cook for 1.5 minutes

Remove from heat. Add and mix in vanilla.

Stir in the remaining ingredients.

Quickly spoon onto a baking sheet covered in wax paper (I used a silicon baking sheet)

Place in freezer until hardened.

Store in fridge. Try not to eat all at once!

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC.  She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and baby daughter.  To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”  Find her blog at thepantrylab.com