BETHANY, Mo. – One heart-healthy way to your Valentine’s heart is dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate and cocoa may have health benefits if consumed in moderation, says University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist Janet Hackert.

Dark chocolate and cocoa contain greater amounts of plant-based nutrients called flavanols than other forms of chocolate. These compounds have a bitter flavor and give dark chocolate and cocoa their characteristic taste.

Research shows that flavanols improve heart health and possibly brain health, Hackert says.

The November 2013 issue of Tufts University Nutrition and Health Letter reported that flavanols in dark chocolate and cocoa “positively affect the circulatory system and help maintain the flexibility of the arteries.”

She said researchers found that adults with hypertension and/or diabetes who drank two cups of hot cocoa each day for a month showed both improved brain function and increased blood flow to the brain.

Additionally, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that a small group of subjects with an average age of 73 and impaired function improved their cognitive skills with daily intake of cocoa.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should you eat a box of chocolates every day to improve your health, Hackert says. In fact, you should limit your intake to about an ounce daily. This equals about four dark chocolate candy kisses or a cup of cocoa made from cocoa powder.

“Keep in mind that along with flavanol-packed cocoa in the candy or hot drink, typically there is also a good bit of fat, sugar and other less healthy components,” she says.

She also suggests alternative heart-healthy food choices for Valentine’s Day.

Good choices include raisins, pretzels or strawberries covered in dark chocolate, specialty pears, or a fruit basket.

Valentine’s Day gifts need not be expensive.

“Time together is the sweetest gift,” she said.  Plan a memorable time for just the two of you or the entire family with aerobic activities such as bowling, skating or an evening of dancing. A walk hand-in-hand for just the two of you also can be heartwarming, heart-healthy and free.

For more information on the benefits and limitations of cocoa and dark chocolate, or other health and nutrition topics, contact Janet Hackert at 660-425-6434 or [email protected], or your local University of Missouri Extension office.

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