Why dark chocolate is a healthier indulgence option

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Chocolate: it's intense, luscious, rich and highly caloric. And, it's good for you. So good, in fact, that chocolate is mentioned in the University of Michigan Healing Foods Pyramid (www.med.umich.edu/umim).

"I think chocolate is really good for you," says Dr. Timothy S. Harlan, who runs the food and nutrition Web site, www.drgourmet.com.

Chocolate contains antioxidants that may reduce your LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduce your risk of blood clots and increase blood flow. It may also improve your mood by boosting the endorphin levels in your brain, according to the University of Michigan's department of Integrative Medicine.

What a sweet deal!

But before you rush off to the supermarket for your favorite chocolate brand you should know a few things to get the greatest health benefit from this indulgence. Cocoa solids, the product of cocoa bean processing, are the source of antioxidants that may provide health benefits.

The greater the percentage of cocoa solids, the more antioxidants you're likely to get, says Jenna Wunder, R.D., with the University of Michigan Department of Integrative Medicine. You'll see the percentage given on the label of most high-quality dark chocolate bars.

"We recommend 70 percent or more. The higher the quality the better," says Wunder.

You'll find chocolate bars delivering up to 85 percent cocoa (usually expressed as percentage of cacao, the seeds of the cacao tree used to make cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter) in your supermarket. Some brands are even introducing 91 percent bittersweet chocolate bars.

When manufacturers increase the percentage of cocoa solids in a chocolate bar, they decrease the sugar and other ingredients. Take a taste. If the chocolate is too bitter, you're not going to enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately milk chocolate doesn't confer the same advantages as the dark version. Milk binds to the antioxidants in chocolate making them unavailable (In fact, you shouldn't drink milk while you're eating dark chocolate.), Wunder says. As healthful as dark chocolate is, moderation is still key, say health professionals.

"At its baseline, a bar of chocolate is good for you. It does have a lot more calories (than many other foods) and that's where people get into trouble," says Dr. Harlan. An ounce of dark chocolate, the amount of chocolate that fits into the center of your hand, has about 140 calories and 9 grams total fat.

Purchase chocolate by the ounce so you're not tempted to overdo it, says Wunder. Enjoy chocolate in place of another snack that's high in calories and fat, but without the antioxidants, or combine chocolate with fruit so you're getting the potential of both foods.


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