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Chocoholics breathed a collective sigh of relief a couple of years ago when studies appeared touting chocolate as being good for you . But have we gotten used yet to seeing chocolate bars in the health-food aisles?
Dark chocolate (that's chocolate without milk as an additive, and that contains more than 15 percent cocoa solids, according to U.S. standards) contains antioxidant flavonoids, which are plant compounds that prevent free radical damage and can help respond to allergens, viruses, inflammations and carcinogens.
According to one scientist, dark chocolate contains more flavonoids than any other food, including blueberries, red wine and green and black tea.
So what exactly can that square of Hershey's Dark do for you? According to studies, the flavonoids and antioxidants in dark chocolate can help decrease the risk of heart disease and reduce blood pressure.
Since the news broke, plenty of manufacturers are eager to get into the game. Perhaps most surprising is Mars, which even formed a new division, Mars Nutrition for Health & Well-Being. The company spent more than a decade studying the health benefits of flavonoids in cocoa, and the end result is CocoaVia, a line of heart-healthy chocolate snacks such as chocolate covered almonds as well as bars containing soy crisp, blueberries, almonds and cherries.
Even famous health guru Gary Null is joining the fray. His bar called Nutritious Chocolate not only contains heart-healthy chocolate, but also soy protein (20 grams of protein per bar) and a combination of fruit and vegetables. These unlikely additions, including broccoli, parsley, kale, apples, peaches and mangoes, give the bar a nutritional profile that helps fulfill daily recommendations of Vitamin E (35 percent), Iron (10 percent) and Vitamin C (50 percent).
Meanwhile, Vere asks on its Web site, "Have you had your daily dose today?" It's not a vitamin pill they're talking about, it's chocolate. Founder Kathy Moskal created the company after unsuccessfully searching for chocolates that could be enjoyed by a diabetic friend. Vere chocolates are sweetened with fructose, making them suitable for diabetics because the fructose does not spike blood sugar levels.
The company claims its chocolate has twice the antioxidants of standard dark chocolate, thanks that the shorter fermentation cycle required by the type of bean used, an heirloom cocoa bean from Ecuador. The chocolate is also low carb, low glycemic and high in fiber.
But to get your chocolate fix, you don't have to opt for one of these health-focused brands. Plenty of specialty chocolate manufacturers are offering an increasing array of dark chocolates that can get you your antioxidant hit. Many are touting cocoa contents of 60 percent and higher (remember, there's only 15 percent required to legally be dubbed "dark"). And the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more antioxidant benefits the chocolate will contain.
Just choose your chocolate carefully, and use common sense. Those caramel-filled bonbons are not going to give you the same benefits as a square of pure chocolate. It's best to enjoy an ounce of really good-quality dark chocolate every day or so.