A new study adds to the growing body of evidence that both foods can be good for the heart -- and not just in the romantic way.
The key, say researchers, is the high flavonoid content of both chocolate and tea. A type of antioxidant, flavonoids have been shown in studies to possess powerful disease-fighting properties, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular health."No single food will confer immunity from illness. But both tea and chocolate can be components of a healthy diet if [taken] in moderation along with other flavonoid-rich plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables," says study author Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.
Antioxidants such as flavonoids protect the heart by helping to reduce the vessel-clogging effects of cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance that can keep blood from reaching the heart.
In addition, says Kris-Etherton, tea has some other healthful properties. It can cut your rate of stroke and heart attack by helping you to reduce the risk of blood-clot formation, as it works to decrease inflammation within blood vessel walls. Many doctors now believe that is key to reducing the risk of heart disease and controlling blood pressure.
For nutritionist Samantha Heller, the new study helps to consolidate information researchers have been finding for some time. "Foods which are high in antioxidants are good for us," says Heller, a registered dietician at New York University Medical Center.
However, she cautions that while chocolate may not be all bad, it's also not all good -- particularly for those who may already be at risk for heart disease.
"At least one study, published in the November 2001 journal Epidemiology, found that the health protective effects of [flavonoids] were most pronounced in [those] at low risk of coronary heart disease -- for example, non-smokers, free of diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease," says Heller.
In other words, she adds, you can't swap that plate of fruits and vegetables for a box of bon-bons and expect the same benefits, particularly if you're already at risk for heart disease.
Kris-Etherton agrees. "First and foremost, make sure you have a good diet and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes -- foods that are very important for building a diet that emphasizes plant foods," she says.
Although researchers say chocolate is a "fun food" that can be enjoyed in moderation, both Heller and Kris-Etherton point out it can also be high in fat and sugar. Both can dramatically increase the risk of heart disease, particularly when eaten in excess.
"The good in chocolate doesn't outweigh the bad, if you just eat too much of it," says Heller.
The good news about tea: As long as you don't overload it with sugar or high-fat milk, it's a low-calorie way to increase your antioxidant level with almost no downside, Kris-Etherton says.
The new study, published in the current issue of the journal Current Opinion in Lipidology, was an analysis of 66 previously published research papers looking at the health risks and benefits of both tea and chocolate.
The studies reviewed indicated that 150 milligrams of flavonoids -- the amount in an average cup of brewed tea -- produced immediate health effects on the heart, while 500 milligrams -- or roughly 3-and-half cups of tea -- produced a more sustained effect.
The evidence concerning chocolate was a little less clear. Here, the studies indicated that while just a little more than one ounce of flavonoid-rich chocolate produces immediate health effects, you would need about four-and-a-half ounces -- or several candy bars' worth -- to produce a longer-lasting effect.
Complicating matters just a bit more, Kris-Etherton cautions there can be a wide variation in the amount of flavonoids in chocolates, depending on how they are processed and the amount of pure cocoa they contain.
Although she doesn't necessarily believe expensive, imported chocolates are healthier, she does admit that "a cheaper or less-expensive chocolate may have less cocoa and, thus, likely have less flavonoids."
As for tea, studies show your best bet is either green or black tea for the highest flavonoid content. However, Kris-Etherton believes all tea has some potential health benefit.
What To Do
To learn more about the health effects of antioxidants, visit the National Library of Medicine.
To find out more about the health benefits of tea, check out The Tea Health Research Division of the Tea Council.
For recipes that incorporate the health benefits of cocoa without some of the fat and sugar found in traditional chocolate candy, click here.