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Chocolate

02/14/06 12:00AM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST)On this Valentine's Day, commentator Rachel Johnson suggests that chocolate might actually be good for us.

(JOHNSON) It's Valentine's Day, and I have a confession to make: I love chocolate. Wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth, velvety smooth, great-tasting chocolate. So you can imagine my delight as the scientific evidence mounts showing that chocolate may be the ultimate health food. As my EatingWell colleague Peter Jaret mused in a recent article, can it be true that chocolate, one of our favorite indulgences, is really just what the doctor ordered?

For starters, it turns out that the fat in chocolate is not all bad. Most of the saturated fat in chocolate is in a form called stearic acid, which doesn't increase cholesterol levels as much as other saturated fats. My friend and Penn State colleague, Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, has researched the effects of chocolate on blood cholesterol for more than 15 years. As you can imagine, she has no trouble recruiting compliant volunteers for her chocolate feeding trials. She and her research team showed that people who added chocolate to their usual diets saw an increase in HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and a lowering of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol. These are both good signs of improved heart health.

Another health benefit is that chocolate, like red wine, can be rich in compounds called flavonoids. Cocoa is rich in two types of flavonoids: flavonols and proanthocyanidins. They function as antioxidants, blocking the damaging effects of free radical oxygen molecules and lowering the risk of injury to the lining of blood vessels. The flavonoids in chocolate also have a thinning effect on blood. This helps reduce the risk of blood clots that obstruct arteries and that might ultimately lead to heart attacks. Lastly, the compounds may beneficially affect the immune system by reducing inflammation. This, too, can be important in protecting against heart disease, since inflammation in the lining of artery walls is thought to be part of the damaging process that leads to cardiovascular disease.

So, what's the smartest choice if you're shopping for chocolate for your Valentine? The key is to choose chocolate with a high cocoa content with less added sugars and fats. Fine chocolates list their cocoa content by percent weight. Knowing that the cocoa contains the flavonoids means you should look for chocolate made with seventy percent cocoa or higher. Note that milk chocolate may have no more than ten percent cocoa, and white chocolate has none.

You may find the seventy percent cocoa somewhat bitter at first; but, like me, you'll soon come to appreciate the richer taste and lower sweetness.

Isn't it fantastic to learn that it doesn't have to be Valentine's Day to enjoy a piece of great-tasting chocolate, knowing it's good for your soul and your heart?

I'm Rachel Johnson of Colchester.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine.
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