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Eating chocolate for your heart? Here's what you need to know

February might originally have been chosen as Chocolate Lovers' Month because of Valentine's Day, a holiday traditionally linked with chocolate. But the fact that February is also Heart Health Month couldn't be more appropriate.

Consumption of dark chocolate has been consistently linked with a host of heart-health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and inflammation, and improving cholesterol profiles and insulin resistance. As the research has stacked up, sales of dark chocolate have increased 50%!

Most people assume that the higher the cacao percentage of the chocolate, the better it is for you. Not necessarily! Here's an updated guide to selecting the most beneficial chocolates:

Region As with gourmet coffee, you can now buy gourmet dark chocolate with a pedigree that specifies where the beans were grown. On average, cocoa beans grown in Ecuador, Columbia, and on the Ivory Coast have almost twice the flavanol content of beans from the Dominican Republic or Peru.

Variety Upscale dark chocolates may also identify the specific variety of cocoa bean used. The Amazon and Forestaro varieties are higher in flavanols than theCriollo variety.

Processing Flavanols are lost to a greater or lesser degree depending on how the beans are fermented, dried, and roasted. Unfortunately, you can't tell much about the processing method from the product label. But some manufacturers, such as Callebaut and Mars, have developed special processing methods that minimize these losses. Although milk chocolate products are generally lower in flavanols, these flavanol-preserving methods can produce milk chocolate that is just as high in flavanols as dark chocolate! Acticoa (made by Callebaut) and CocoaVia (made by Mars) are two brands to look for.

Alkalization Cocoa powder is naturally high in flavanols but these compounds can impart a bitter, astringent taste along with all the health benefits. Cooks often prefer the smoother taste of alkalized (or "Dutched") cocoa powder, but the dutching process dramatically decreases the flavanol content. For maximum flavanol content, choose un-dutched cocoa powder.

Good news for chocolate milk lovers Preliminary research suggested that mixing milk and cocoa might diminish the bioavailability of the beneficial flavanols in cocoa but several recent studies have shown no significant difference in flavanol absorption from cocoa drinks made with or without milk.

A palatable prescription

All the research on cocoa has led to a very palatable prescription: Eat 1 ounce of dark chocolate (or 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder) daily for a healthier heart. The guidelines above can help steer you toward the chocolate products that are most beneficial. But don't forget that a daily square or cup of chocolate adds a couple hundred calories to your diet--be sure to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.

Source: NutritionData.com

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