Chocolate and Valentine's Day are a natural pair.
So are chocolate and heart health, according to dietitian Lucy Crain.
Crain, who works at the Callaway County Health Department, spoke Wednesday at the Callaway County Public Library about chocolate's potential health benefits.
"Before the library asked me to talk about this, I didn't actually know very much about chocolate's health benefits," Crain confessed.
After digging into the scientific studies and consulting dietitian friends, Crain came to realize it's true: Dark chocolate can have some surprising upsides.
"It's the cocoa that has the benefits," she explained. "Milk chocolate doesn't have much of it. You want at least 70 percent dark."
Darker chocolate — with a higher percentage of cocoa — also has less fat and sugar, she said.
Cocoa is chock-full of flavonols and catechins, two types of antioxidants, which help protect cells from damaging free radical molecules. Research indicates cocoa also has positive effects on the circulatory system. It may improve blood pressure and reduce risks of developing hypertension. It may also help reduce low density lipids, or "bad cholesterol," and blood sugar.
"I found one study where participants drank a chocolate drink once per day for eight weeks," she said. "They showed lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol."
As with all things, dark chocolate is best enjoyed in moderation, Crain said. Eating one or two small squares a day as part of a balanced diet will help provide benefits without too big of a sugar dose.
"My recommendation is everything in moderation," she said, then laughed. "Also, if you see me in the grocery store, don't run away but don't look in my cart."
After talking about the science behind chocolate, Crain led a tasting of chocolates ranging from sweet Cadbury milk chocolate to earthy, bitter Ghirardelli 92 percent dark chocolate. Proper tasting protocol, according to Crain and Ghirardelli, invites the taster to engage all senses. Sniff the chocolate, admire its color, break a piece in half — higher-quality chocolate will have more of a snap — and allow it to melt on the tongue.
Sips of water and nibbles of plain crackers helped clear tasters' palates between bites.
"Today, I learned I don't like 92 percent dark," Joyce Airaghi said. "I've always enjoyed dark chocolate, though."
Class participants agreed 72 percent cocoa is the sweet spot for dark chocolate.
February is heart month at the Callaway County Health Department (4950 County Road 304, Fulton). Stop by for a free blood pressure screening or an affordable cholesterol test. For children, the health department is currently running a coloring competition complete with prizes.