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Chocolate's Dark Secret

From religious elixir to lover's treat to health food? The new truth about chocolate.

If you think chocolate is heavenly, you're not alone. Chocolate literally is the "food of the gods" -- that's what its botanical name, Theobroma cacao, means. But you needn't be divine to indulge. Mere mortals adore chocolate in all its forms, from the humble chocolate chip cookie to gourmet goodies, wintry hot chocolate, and decadent desserts. And to make chocolate even more drool-worthy, researchers are discovering this ancient treat may have some modern health benefits.

Q: When was chocolate first discovered?

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A: Chocolate dates back centuries. The Mayans traded valuable cacao beans, from which chocolate is made, as a commodity. In 1519, the Aztecs discovered that they could make a delicious drink by adding water and sweeteners to roasted, ground-up cacao beans. The chocolate bar came along later in the 18th century, by mixing chocolate with milk.

Q: Are all chocolates good for you?

A: Chocolate lovers, rejoice -- but be savvy about chocolate's health perks. Chocolate really can be good for you, but not all chocolate is created equally. If you're after health benefits, forget the chewy, caramel, marshmallow or cream-covered chocolates and look for solid dark chocolate.

Q: Why is dark chocolate a better choice than white or milk chocolate?

A: The health benefits of chocolate come from flavonoids, a type of phytochemical found in the cacao bean. Dark chocolate contains a higher percentage of cocoa than white or milk chocolate. And the more cocoa a chocolate product contains, the richer its health-promoting content.

Q: What are the health benefits of dark chocolate?

A: Research has shown that when dark chocolate is part of a healthy lifestyle, it can improve heart health, blood pressure, reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol, and increase blood flow to the brain. It may also improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, reducing diabetes risk.

Q: How much chocolate should I eat to get the health benefits?

A: Limit the portion size because even though dark chocolate contains good-for-you flavonoids, it also has not-so-good-for-you fat, sugar, and calories. Overindulging in chocolate can undo any health benefits and lead to weight gain and related health problems.

A small portion of about an ounce should satisfy your taste buds -- especially if you eat it slowly -- and provide chocolate's health benefits without widening your waistline.

Here's an example. A standard-sized bar of Hershey's Dark Chocolate has 531 calories, compared with 150 calories from an ounce of dark chocolate or about six Hershey's Kisses.

Q: Why do some chocolates tout the percent of cocoa on the label?

A: The greater the percentage of cocoa, the higher the concentration of flavonoids. Most milk chocolate contains up to 50% cocoa, while some inexpensive chocolates contain as little as 7% cocoa. Look for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa for the finest dark chocolate rich in healthy flavonoids.

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