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I don’t remember the first time I learned that chocolate was healthy, but I’m glad I did.  Growing up, I didn’t really know that much about chocolate other than Hershey and (for special occasions) Godiva.  As I got older, I wanted to stay away from empty calories.   Eventually, I learned that those calories weren’t quite as empty as I thought.   I began to look at chocolate in a different way.

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma (food of the gods) cacao, which produces large elliptical pods.   Inside the pods are what are sometimes called cocoa beans, but are actually seeds.  These seeds actually contain a nice amount of fiber.  They also have protein and contain a high percentage of antioxidants, which help to reduce the damage from free radicals.

Research has shown that indulging in regular chocolate consumption may reduce your risk of heart disease by 37 percent, risk of diabetes by 31 percent and risk of stroke by 29 perfect.   The antioxidants in chocolate are specifically called polyphenols and actually inhibit the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol.  They have been found to lower blood pressure and even act as a blood thinner akin to aspirin.

So, why has chocolate been given such a bad rap all these years?  The issue is what we add to chocolate.  We are so good at taking a good thing and turning it bad.  The cocoa seeds are fermented, roasted, ground, pressed, filtered, and transformed into chocolate liquor (cacao's direct descendant). Chocolate liquor can then be separated into two components, the fat, called cocoa butter, and the dry solid cocoa cakes or "cocoa press," which is subsequently ground into cocoa.   Manufacturers then take this liquor and process it with sugar and/or fats.  The naturally occurring cocoa butter, although saturated, has been found to work in the body more like olive oil and is generally considered to be healthful.  However, many companies prefer to add other oils or even hydrogenated oils to the chocolate which can be very harmful to your health.  When processing cocoa, most companies use an alkaline solution or Dutch-process to create a more mildly flavored, darker powder, but much of the health benefits of the raw cocoa is lost in the processing.

Have you noticed that most fine chocolate bars and packages have a % symbol?  That number refers to the “percent cacao” or the percentage of cocoa solids in a product.  The cocoa solids are all of the ingredients from a cocoa bean, including cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor and even ground cacao nib.  Products with a higher cacao percentage have more cocoa solids nonfat (the term for non-cocoa butter cocoa products) and more cocoa butter in them.  Higher percentages mean that the chocolate will be darker and more strongly flavored, as there is less room for sugar and other flavorings in the product. Since the ratio of cocoa solids nonfat and cocoa butter can vary widely, even products with the same percentage can taste and feel very different on the tongue.

It is best to choose chocolate with at least 70% cacao content.  I will admit that I was once a milk chocolate girl.  Dark chocolate -- especially with a high cocoa content is an acquired taste.  But once you get it, you will see that a little goes a long way and the health benefits are a great bonus.