If you’re going to give your heart to someone this Valentine’s Day, why not make it a healthy one? Replace that junky chocolate with a version that can boost cardiovascular health.
The cacao bean — which is what chocolate is made from — is high in heart-healthy flavonols and antioxidants, says Lauren Manaker, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina. In one study, those with hypertension who ate chocolate bars containing 70 percent cacao showed improved blood vessel flexibility. And a 2017 review of 35 studies found that regular consumption of cocoa lowered blood pressure by about 4 points in people who already had high blood pressure.
For a snack you can eat every day, switch to dark chocolate bars, keep portions small and read the labels carefully. Here are 10 tips to help you choose the healthiest chocolate bars.
1. Pay attention to ingredients
This is the number one thing to pay attention to on a chocolate label. As with any food, fewer ingredients is usually better. True chocolate is made with only cacao beans, cocoa solids and sugar, says Kim Hack, owner of Cocoa + Co., a chocolate café in Chicago.
2. Look for at least 70 percent cocoa or cacao
The higher the percentage, the less sugar the chocolate contains. A bar that’s 70 percent cocoa or cacao (the terms are often used interchangeably on labels) will have 30 percent sugar, whereas a bar with 85 percent will contain about 15 percent sugar. Dark chocolate contains at least 50 percent cacao, has a more pronounced chocolate flavor and is a beneficial source of heart-healthy flavanols and antioxidants from the cacao, Manaker says. Milk chocolate — anything with 49 percent or less cacao — contains milk solids and additional sugar, resulting in a sweeter taste. White chocolate, despite its name, doesn’t contain any cacao, and is essentially sugar, milk solids and cocoa butter. If a bar is not labeled with a percentage, that’s a red flag that it’s probably packed with sugar. Avoid chocolate with ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors or flavors.
Studies show a bar with 70 percent cacao offers optimal health benefits, and 85 percent dark chocolate has mood-boosting qualities, according to a 2022 study. Go for the highest percentage you’ll actually enjoy, though — eating chocolate should be fun.