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    Health Benefits of Chocolate

    The delectable, sensuous, velvety taste of chocolate was traditionally thought to be an aphrodisiac. It seemed to enhance romantic yearnings. However, it also had a reputation for some unattractive side effects: It was believed excessive consumption of chocolate caused acne, weight increase and high blood cholesterol.

    Good News for Chocolate Lovers

    Now, however, solid research has discovered some very good news for chocolate lovers: It appears chocolate actually offers health benefits for the heart having nothing to do with romance.  New experiments show that antioxidants in dark chocolate and cocoa powder may increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels by as much as 10 percent, says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., a registered dietitian at Pennsylvania State University.

    In her studies, subjects ate 22 grams of cocoa powder and 16 grams of dark chocolate every day (one Hershey bar contains 45 grams of cocoa powder). The studies proved that the "bad" (LDL) cholesterol was less susceptible to oxidation, a process that normally leads to artery-clogging plaques. This means that cocoa could offer a satisfactory (and delicious) alternative to medicine that helps prevent plaque development.

    It also has been found when people eat milk chocolate regularly, their levels of LDL don’t increase as much as might be expected from ordinary fat consumption. Further, Dr. Kris-Etherton’s tests also show that eating one standard-sized milk chocolate bar a day did not affect the blood cholesterol of adult, male students. “Chocolate is not bad,” she says, “and it may have some beneficial effects. People should not feel guilty about eating it."

    Research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science supported Dr. Kris Atherton’s findings. The Association reported that chocolate has many chemical compounds that may keep high blood pressure down, the blood flowing and the heart healthy. Like Dr. Kris-Atherton, they also found chocolate does this by preventing fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and forming plaque that can block arteries.

    Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure.

    Chocolate, the New Vegetables?

    Flavonoids are plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties; so far, scientists have found more than 4,000 kinds. Cocoa beans contain large quantities of flavonoids and therefore have much in common with fruits and vegetables such as cranberries, peanuts, strawberries, and apples. One study found that a substance in cocoa helps the body process nitric oxide (NO), a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure. Another study showed that flavonoids in cocoa not only prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries, but also make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause clots. The flavonoids in chocolate are called flavanols.

    Dark chocolate has even more health benefits than milk chocolate as it contains nearly 8 times the number of antioxidants found in strawberries. It is now also believed that chocolate contains the same kind of antioxidants found in red wine. While chocolate does not cause symptoms of drunkenness, it is often a relaxing substance, another health benefit.

    As a result of these findings, it appears that there is no harm in enjoying a little bit of chocolate once a day. But as in everything, moderation is key. And if moderating an excessive craving for chocolate sounds difficult, try to remember that some people actually outgrow their addiction to the sublime substance. So there is something to be said for aging.

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