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Chocolate and Valentine’s Day — A match made in heaven?

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In the U.S., chocolate consumption exceeds 12 pounds per person, per year.

In the U.S., chocolate consumption exceeds 12 pounds per person, per year.Are you planning to give your significant other a box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day? If so, one University of Alabama at Birmingham nutrition expert is providing information on some of the health benefits of the decadent dessert and insight as to why it has become so popular during the holiday.

Lizzy Davis, Ph.D., an assistant professor with UAB’s Department of Nutrition Sciences, says chocolate can be synonymous with Valentine’s Day because cocoa beans contain tryptophan and phenylethylamine — chemicals that are connected with improved mood and happiness and make you feel energized.

“In fact, these are even coined the ‘love drug’ because they mimic the emotions a person feels when experiencing love,” Davis said.

Where does chocolate come from?

“Many people may not realize this, but chocolate is a plant-based food,” Davis said, “at least, in its original state.”

Chocolate comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao pods are harvested from the trees, and inside each cacao pod are cacao beans. The beans then undergo a fermentation process; however, the beans themselves are not fermented, rather the outside of the beans, which in turn has a flavor impact on the bean.

This is what gives chocolate its signature chocolatey taste. Finally, the beans are dried, roasted and shelled. The cacao nib is removed from the bean and ground into something called chocolate liquor.

“Chocolate liquor is non-alcoholic and not to be confused with chocolate liqueur that you may enjoy sipping with your chocolate,” Davis said. “Chocolate liquor is chocolate, as we know it, in its purest form or the most concentrated. It’s a mixture of cocoa powder and cocoa butter.”

Do we eat this chocolate liquor?

No, but Davis says it is important to understand that it is the ratio of chocolate liquor and other additions that make up different types of chocolate.

“For example, dark chocolate has the most amount of chocolate liquor, with the addition of some sugar,” Davis said. “Milk chocolate has some of the chocolate liquor with sugar and milk. On some fancier chocolate packages, you will see a percentage, which represents the percentage of chocolate liquor to these ‘other’ ingredients. Interestingly, white chocolate contains only the cocoa butter with the addition of milk and sugar but does not contain the other component of the chocolate liquor and cocoa powder.””

Lizzy Davis, Ph.D.,
Photography: Lexi Coon

Is dark chocolate healthier?

Davis says healthy is a subjective term.

“What is healthy for one person may not be healthy for another,” she said. “However, remember that chocolate, in its purest form, comes from a tree. For this reason, there are some health/nutrition benefits to chocolate.”

But Davis does agree that dark chocolate is the healthiest kind of chocolate, because it has a higher percentage of chocolate liquor without the addition of as much sugar or any milk compared to milk or white chocolates.

“For this reason, dark chocolate may be lower in sugar and contains more of those nutrient benefits connected to the cacao,” she said. “Some of the health benefits are that it contains antioxidants (specifically flavanols), which have been shown to have a relationship with lower blood pressure, risk of stroke and coronary heart disease.”

She adds that some studies suggest magnesium in chocolate may explain pre-menstrual cravings and pregnant women might crave chocolate for its iron. However, it is important to note that you should not use these foods to obtain your daily intake.

Savor, and enjoy

Davis says that, no matter your preference, it is OK to enjoy your chocolate this Valentine’s Day.

“Know that, no matter what type you choose, there still are some added health benefits,” she said. “If you’re looking to get some of those health benefits from chocolate, choose dark chocolates with a higher percentage. To get even more of these health benefits, choose a chocolate with a higher percentage on the packaging.”

At UAB, Davis is the program director of the Dietetic Education Program.