Dark Chocolate, Red Wine, & Heart Health

Need a good excuse to enjoy some good-quality dark chocolate and/or a glass of your favorite red wine? And maybe especially in February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day and heart health!

Well, here’s at least one good reason – both dark chocolate and red wine supply antioxidant flavonoids. Flavonoids protect human health in a number of ways. Their antioxidant action helps to protect tissues in the body (including the blood vessel linings) from damage that can lead to inflammation. Inflammation of the blood vessel lining (endothelium) favors plaque formation. The plaque buildup leads to stiffening of the vessel walls and blood pressure elevation, and can also result in a blood clot that can block circulation to the heart (a heart attack).

While both dark chocolate and red wine are considered good sources of protective flavonoids, they are by no means the only sources. A number of plant foods, including especially berries, citrus fruit, and dark green leafy vegetables (like kale, parsley, and arugula or rocket), as well as brewed tea (both black and green varieties) are also rich sources of these plant protectors. And herbs (especially capers and parsley) are also rich sources.

Flavonoids contribute a strong, pungent, and bitter flavor to foods. Processing reduces the bitterness and results in reduction in the level of these protectors, as illustrated in the table below comparing the flavonoid content in a cup (or 8 fluid ounces) of various food and beverages. (The flavonoid values were calculated from the USDA Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods (Release 3.1, December 2013). For example, decaffeinated teas have about half the flavonoid content of regular teas. And removal of the grape skins in the production of white wine results in almost total removal/loss of flavonoids.

(mg per cup or 8 fl oz)
Tea, black, brewed284
Tea, black, decaffeinated, brewed137
Tea, green, brewed331
Tea, green, decaffeinated, brewed167
Wine, red, generic82
Wine, red, cabernet130 – 168
Wine, syrah or shiraz406
Wine, white5
Fruit, blueberries, raw222 – 432
Fruit, cranberries, raw146
Fruit, raspberries, raw64 – 68
Fruit, strawberries, raw48
Fruit, orange78
Vegetable, arugula (rocket), raw14
Vegetable, capers, canned, bottled384
Vegetable, kale, raw71
Vegetable, onion, red, raw90
Vegetable, parsley272

The Dutch process of adding alkali to chocolate results in a less bitter chocolate product that is also lower in flavonoid content. The percent of nonfat cocoa solids (NFCS) is the best determinant of antioxidant activity and total flavonoid content. From highest to lowest in NFCS: raw cocoa, baking chocolate, dark chocolate, baking chips, milk chocolate, chocolate syrup. For example, an ounce of regular dark chocolate contains about 33 mg flavonoids, while an ounce of Dutch process dark chocolate provides only 16 mg, and an ounce of milk chocolate provides only 5 mg. And not only does darker (and more bitter) chocolate contain more protective flavonoids, it also contains more of the mineral magnesium, so important for normal heart rhythm and rate.

Other issues to consider in deciding how much and what type of chocolate to enjoy include the issue of “Fair Trade” and also the fact that chocolate can be contaminated with lead and cadmium. Purchasing “Fair Trade” chocolate is a way to support small farmer co-ops, which decide democratically how to divide profits. Lead affects the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and the neurological system, and cadmium contributes to elevation in blood pressure.

Moderate alcohol consumption (<2 drinks/day for men and <1 drink/day for women) is associated with reduced risk of coronary artery disease. This risk reduction is believed to occur through alcohol’s ability to increase HDL-cholesterol. It is unclear whether the flavonoids in red wine make it especially cardio protective, but there is some population research to support this connection. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) specify that one drink is equivalent to 5 fluid ounces of wine, 12 fluid ounces of beer, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor.

So for both chocolate and red wine, moderation is the key. Health is always a question of balance … and I would add … “if you are going to blow it, blow it with quality stuff.” And speaking of “quality stuff,” treat your guests to Chocolate Tofu Mousse with Berries. This rich, creamy dessert tastes remarkably like real chocolate mousse, but it’s much lower in fat and since it’s made with tofu, it contains no animal fat. The berries add more flavonoids, along with fiber and a nice tartness to cut the richness of the mousse.

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