Chuck, I’m giving out chocolates this year to my valentines. In doing so, am I as concerned for their healthy hearts as I am for my romantic one? – “Smitten for Sweets,” Bardstown, Ky.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, cupids across the country are contemplating what types of sweets to get their sweeties.

The verdict this year is definitely in: dark chocolate.

A brand-new study again demonstrates the health benefits of consuming dark chocolate. Granted, the research was done by The Hershey Co.’s Center for Health and Nutrition, which seems a bit self-serving, but the findings are still legit.

The research, published in Chemistry Central Journal, concludes that dark chocolate and cocoa powder are better for you than many “superfruits,” a term describing fruits that are particularly high in nutritional value, especially in antioxidants.

The study reveals that dark chocolate and cocoa powder have a “greater antioxidant capacity” and “greater total flavanol and polyphenol content” than the fruit juices studied. A big reason is that dark chocolate and cocoa powder are made from an extract from cacao beans, which are the seeds of the cacao (a tree whose scientific name is Theobroma cacao, meaning “cacao, the food of the gods,” a nod to the etymological origin of “cacao,” which came from the Aztecs). As senior author Dr. Debra Miller explained, cacao beans are a superfruit “providing nutritive value beyond that of their macronutrient composition.”

The study elaborates: “Analysis of the fruit powders demonstrated that the antioxidant capacity of cocoa powder was significantly greater than blueberry, cranberry and pomegranate powder on a per gram basis. The total polyphenol content of cocoa powder appeared to be greater than acai, blueberry and cranberry powder; however these differences did not reach statistical significance. The total flavanol content of cocoa powder was significantly greater than all of the other fruit powders tested.”

Flavanols are in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and are phytonutrients (meaning “plant chemicals”) that help maintain healthy blood vessels. And polyphenols are antioxidants in plant foods. They protect the body against free radicals, which result in a host of detrimental effects upon aging, including to the cardiovascular system and the brain.

We’ve long known that high doses of antioxidants are found in berries, grapes (including red wine) and green tea. Dark chocolate, too, has large quantities of beneficial catechins (a type of antioxidant phytochemical). One ounce contains as much as a half-cup of brewed black tea. Chocolate also contains copper, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, vitamin E and small amounts of protein. However, 1 ounce of dark chocolate contains about 6 grams of saturated fats, so remember that it’s an occasional snack, not a meal.

And let me dispel a few popular myths about dark chocolate. According to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, there is not an established link between acne and eating chocolate. Dark chocolate has no addictive ingredients. Studies have not placed it high on the list of cavity-causing products; cocoa butter in chocolate may provide protection against tooth decay. Studies also show that cocoa butter has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels because of the high level of stearic acid. And contrary to popular belief, chocolate contains very small amounts of caffeine.

Lastly, before you go out and go nuts at your favorite candy store, keep in mind that this study is verifying the health properties in dark chocolates (bittersweet, semisweet and sweet), not milk chocolates (e.g., those found in candy bars), chocolates milks or hot chocolates. In fact, the study concludes that hot chocolate contains little, if any, of those nutrients because of the processing (alkalization) of the chocolate. Only dark chocolate is your safe bet as a rich source of heart-helping flavanols and polyphenols.

So, as cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum concluded, “When looking for a sweet snack, a square of dark chocolate might, in fact, be your healthiest choice.”

And it might be your most romantic choice for your valentine, as well.

Dear Chuck, I understand that dark chocolate is good for us, but how much should we eat, and which kinds do you recommend? – Jane F., Cranston, R.I.

On the high end, Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky advises: “Choose dark chocolate with cocoa content of 65 percent or higher. Limit yourself to no more than 3 ounces (85 grams) a day, which is the amount shown in studies to be helpful. Because this amount may provide up to 450 calories, you may want to cut calories in other areas or step up the exercise to compensate.”

On the other hand, writer Karen Leland noted an Italian survey that concluded that 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day (about half a bar per week) is the ideal amount to fight against inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

As a person espousing moderation in all things, I think a healthy amount of dark chocolate is probably between those two conclusions.

Leland also conducted a fun and informal survey by enlisting 15 of her chocolate-loving friends to sample 42 brands of high-end dark chocolate. I think their top 10 list of dark chocolates should suffice for any valentine or health-conscious chocolate lover:

  • Dr. Dave’s Mega-O
  • Theo Chocolate
  • Mademoiselle de Margaux
  • Xocolatl de David
  • Vosges’ exotic truffles
  • Oliver Kita Fine Confections
  • Alter Eco’s Midnight Crunch
  • Dean & Deluca
  • Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier
  • Divine Chocolate’s 70 percent dark chocolate with raspberries

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