Health by Chocolate (cont.)

Healthy men who consume flavanol-rich cocoa may see improvements in the flow of blood through their arteries, according to recent research. The researchers found that when healthy men consumed the flavanol-rich cocoa, the ability of their blood vessels to relax improved significantly. And arterial blood flow is important for cardiovascular health.

4. They May Help People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

In a small study in England, 1 1/2 ounces of 85% cocoa dark chocolate was given to a group of adults with chronic fatigue syndrome every day for eight weeks. In the study, which has been submitted for publication, the participants reported feeling less fatigued after eating the chocolate. Surprisingly, no weight gain was reported in the chocolate-eating group, according to researcher Steve Atkin, PhD.

How might it work? The researchers believe that chocolate enhances the action of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which help regulate mood and sleep. More research needs to be done to confirm a benefit in this area.

Not All Chocolate Is Created Equal

While the amount of the healthy antioxidant flavonoids varies from one type of chocolate to another, there's one guideline you can take to the bank: The more nonfat cocoa solids in a chocolate product, the more antioxidants it likely contains.

So which type of chocolate has the most flavonoids? The highest levels are in natural cocoa powder (not Dutch cocoa, though, because it is alkalized cocoa). The type second highest in flavonoids is unsweetened baking chocolate. Dark chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips rank third, with milk chocolate and chocolate syrup at the bottom of the list.

Keep in mind, though, that flavanol levels in types of chocolate can vary based on:

  • The cocoa beans selected.
  • The processing of the beans and chocolate.
  • Storage and handling conditions.

Perhaps in the near future, labels on chocolate products will list amounts of flavanols.

Which Type of Chocolate Has the Most Calories and Fat?

By far the lowest-calorie, lowest-fat form of chocolate is cocoa (the unsweetened type). A serving of 3 tablespoons has about:

  • 60 calories
  • 1.5 grams fat
  • 0 grams saturated fat
  • 3 grams fiber

The equivalent in unsweetened baking chocolate is 1 square (1 ounce), which contributes:

  • 140 calories
  • 14 grams fat
  • 9 grams saturated fat
  • 4 grams fiber

By comparison, a typical 2-ounce serving of semisweet or milk chocolate (with sweetener and other ingredients added) contains:

  • 270 calories
  • 17 grams of fat
  • 10 grams of saturated fat

Semisweet chocolate adds around 3 grams of fiber per 2 ounces, while milk chocolate typically contributes zero. The mostly insoluble fiber in cocoa comes from the seed coat on the unprocessed cocoa bean.

All of this brings us to Health by Chocolate Rule of Thumb #3: For a better flavonoid-to-calorie ratio, choose cocoa powder whenever possible for baking and making hot chocolate.

Don't Forget the Calories

One thing most chocolate bars have in common is calories. An ounce of sweetened chocolate will cost you about 150 calories -- that's about six to seven chocolate kisses. Here's my take on it as a chocolate lover: Those six kisses are worth every calorie.

But here's a word of caution: The health benefits of chocolate may disappear if you are adding the calories above and beyond your regular intake. This could mean you're adding pounds along with the flavonoids.

Researchers from the University of California at Davis said it best in a scientific review on cocoa and chocolate flavonoids published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. They concluded that people may benefit from including a variety of flavonoid-rich foods as part of a healthful diet -- and dark chocolate, in moderate amounts, can be part of this plan.

New and Improved Chocolate Products

Now that the word is out that chocolate may have health benefits, special chocolate products are hitting the shelves. Two examples are CocoaVia and Hershey's Cacao Reserve.

1. CocoaVia (by Mars Inc.)

This product contains cocoa powder with a higher amount of flavanol than your average chocolate bar. The company has also added cholesterol-lowering soy sterol esters (similar to the type in Benecol and Take Control margarines). They have also added B-vitamins and calcium and two antioxidant vitamins, C and E.

Whether all this leads to much health benefits remains to be seen. I can tell you that the products I've tried taste worthy of your attention. If you are interested in trying CocoaVia, try to find them on sale because as the amount of nutrients and flavanols went up, so did the price.

There are several types of CocoaVia bars. The Original Chocolate Bars contain (per 22-gram serving):

  • 100 calories
  • 6 grams fat
  • 3.5 grams saturated fat
  • 9 grams sugars

2. Hershey's Cacao Reserve

Want some of the benefits of dark chocolate but with the flavor of milk chocolate? Try the milk chocolate bars in the Cacao Reserve line by Hershey's. I found them in my drugstore. I tried the Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts with 35% Cacao. It was delicious, and a cross between a milk chocolate bar and a dark chocolate bar, I think.

Per 1 ounce (that's a little more than 28 grams):

  • 162 calories
  • 11 grams fat
  • 5 grams saturated fat
  • 11.8 grams sugars

Chocolate Recipes

If you're ready to cash in on the possible health benefits of chocolate (or at least the taste benefits), here are a couple of lighter dessert recipes to fulfill your chocolate cravings.

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