You've probably heard that chocolate can be good for you, and it's true. Scientifically speaking, studies have shown that chocolate can reduce blood pressure, help to keep your arteries in shape, give your energy a mild boost, trigger pleasure-inducing endorphins, and may even help to burn fat. The bad new is, not all types of the treat deliver these benefits.
How do you tell? Look for these four signs that a bar of chocolate contains healthful ingredients:
1. High Cocoa Content
Cocoa contains antioxidants that offer the health benefits, but not all chocolate contains enough cocoa to be beneficial. Cocoa also gives chocolate its dark color, so white chocolate contains zero cocoa, and the darkest chocolate usually contains the most.
However, the color of chocolate can also come from artificial coloring agents, so you have to read the label to know what's in a package.
To find healthful chocolate, look for a statement of the percentage of cocoa on the wrapper, preferably 70 percent or higher. The same type information can be listed as "cocoa liquor." The "liquor" is not an alcoholic drink but the name the chocolate industry gives to cocoa-bean ingredients after cocoa butter, the bean's natural fat, has been removed.
Some manufacturers just list something like "70 percent dark chocolate," or they list "chocolate liquor" as the first ingredient, meaning that it's the major ingredient in the product (rather than sugar, milk, or something else).
Granted, this can be a bit confusing. If you like a particular brand but don't know what its label means, call the company and ask. Chocolate makers that produce high-quality goodies take pride in carefully selecting their ingredients and will gladly talk to you.
2. Not Milk
Milk interferes with the human body's absorption of the antioxidants in cocoa. For good health, choose dark chocolate and don't drink milk while you eat it. If you find the taste too bitter, try it with fruit or choose a chocolate bar that's already flavored with natural fruit ingredients, such as orange or raspberry, and spices. It's a different experience from milk chocolate but a very pleasant one.
3. Cocoa Butter
The natural fat in cocoa beans, cocoa butter, is a healthy type of saturated fat that doesn't raise cholesterol levels. However, many chocolate bars contain unhealthy, partially hydrogenated fat instead, because the hydrogenated fat costs less and has a longer shelf life. Choose chocolate with cocoa butter, not partially hydrogenated fats.
4. No Artificial Ingredients
Good chocolate doesn't need artificial flavors, but fake ingredients cost less, so manufacturers often use them. Fortunately, we can read food labels.
Organic chocolate doesn't contain artificial flavors, preservatives, or colorings so choosing organic is an easy way to avoid these. In addition, organic cocoa-bean farmers use environmentally friendly methods that help to preserve our remaining rainforest.
Whether you choose organic or not, you will pay a little more for chocolate made with true cocoa-bean ingredients, but why not? Aside from the fact that your health is important, you want a good treat, don't you? In my local supermarkets, a large bar of chocolate costs about a dollar more for the good stuff -- not too hard to swallow, or rather, melt in your mouth.
Vera Tweed is a veteran health journalist and the editor of www.HealthyTricks.com, an online newsletter that makes healthy living more convenient, enjoyable, and attainable.© 2006 Vera Tweed
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