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February 10, 2013

Attention chocoholics – a little chocolate is good for you

By KATHY SMITH

February is American Heart Month and is a month often celebrated with chocolate. The good news for chocoholics is that studies continue to show a link between chocolate and heart health. Several study reviews concluded that eating dark chocolate lowers the risk of heart disease.

Compounds in cocoa beans called alkaloids, theobromines and antioxidant flavonoids are responsible for chocolate’s health benefits. These heart health compounds are the same ones found in red wine, grape juice and tea. They have anti-inflammatory properties which provide protection against blood clots, improve cholesterol levels and help relax blood vessels, potentially lowering blood pressure.

But all chocolate is not equally beneficial. Some companies remove all or some of these compounds because they taste bitter. The theobromine also is a cardio-stimulant, while the level of this compound in dark chocolates is safe for humans to consume, it is toxic to animals.

Cocoa beans are initially fermented to develop the familiar chocolate flavor and aroma. After fermentation, the beans are roasted and crushed to a paste. Ingredients such as milk, vanilla, sugar and cocoa butter are added to produce chocolate.

A popular food trend is to carefully select cocoa beans and add unique flavors such as chilies, herbs and sea salt.

If you love the taste but also want the health benefits of chocolate here are some choices of what you want to look for on labels.

• Cocoa or cacao is expressed as a percentage on labels and refers to the total amount of cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and cocoa powder.

• Chocolate liquor is not a liquid and is not alcohol. It is ground bean nibs and may be listed as unsweetened cocoa.

• Cocoa butter is naturally present and is responsible for the melt-in-your mouth quality of some chocolates. The word butter in its name is not a dairy component; cocoa butter is fat from the cocoa bean.

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