Shopping for "good" chocolate is kind of like searching for a viable online date. Approach the market without a plan and it's easy to get duped by glossy packaging and false claims. Know what you're looking for, though, and you can find yourself a sweetie with substance -- guaranteed to reduce your stress levels, ignite your sex life, and make your heart sing from the first blissful encounter. In fact, findings from a new long-term study in Heart journal involving 25,000 volunteers suggest that eating up to 3.5 ounces of high-quality chocolate per day can significantly reduce risks of heart disease and stroke. Sort through the fakes, protect your heart, and treat your valentine to the good stuff, with these six simple tips for buying the best healthy chocolate on the market:
1. More Bitter, More Better
The term "dark" chocolate isn't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so any bar can be labeled as "dark" -- even if it's not. From a health perspective, what you're investing in when you buy dark chocolate, as opposed to milk or white, is a higher concentration of flavanols and polyphenols -- antioxidants that disarm free radicals associated with disease. In fact, gram-for-gram, dark chocolate has been shown to contain significantly greater antioxidant capacity than blueberries! Manufacturers will often list the cacao percentage on the label, but you'll need at least 70 percent to reap the health benefits.
2. Cocoa Butter or Bust
The good fat in "good" chocolate is cocoa butter, which is a source of heart-healthy stearic acid. In the U.S., manufacturers can't label a product "chocolate" unless it includes cocoa butter as an ingredient, but replacing some of the pure cocoa fat with cheap oils and emulsifiers is fair game. Dodge a choco-fake by avoiding anything "chocolaty," which is sneaky-marketer-speak for "fake chocolate." And run a mile from products with the words "partially hydrogenated" on the ingredient list; these trans fats have been directly linked to heart disease.
3. Don't Go Dutch
Is your chocolate "dutched" or "alkalized"? Toss it. Both terms refer to cocoa processing that substantially reduces its heart-healthy compounds. A study in the Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry showed that the average total flavanol content for natural cocoa was nearly nine times greater than heavily processed varieties.
4. Wrap It Up
Most individuals can afford to enjoy a little bit of dark chocolate daily. In fact, women with a history of heart attack who reported eating one to two servings of high-quality chocolate per week showed a 32 percent lower risk of hospitalization for heart failure than those who passed on the sweets, according to a study in Heart Circulation. But let's be honest: Even a single high-quality truffle contains calories (about 100... and who stops at one truffle?). Suggestion! Avoid over-indulging by opting for individually wrapped chocolates. The act of peeling off a wrapper will slow you down and give your satiety hormones time to register satisfaction. In fact, people consume an average 41 percent fewer calories when snacking on wrapped snacks, according to a study in Appetite journal.
It doesn't take much to make chocolate: cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar, and maybe some vanilla. But not all manufacturers like to Keep It Simple, Sister. Dove's Red Velvet Swirl variety includes some 13 ingredients, including Red 40 Lake, Blue 2 Lake, soy lecithin and PGPR, a cheap alternative to cocoa butter and an emulsifier found in salad dressing. Avoid the extra "fillers" and stick to brands with pure ingredients your grandmother would recognize and keep in the pantry.
6. Berry Bonus
The magical process that makes chocolate healthy doesn't happen in your hands, or your mouth; it happens in your colon. In fact, new research attributes chocolate's precise health benefits to the good bugs in your microbiome that eat up the chocolate and ferment it into anti-inflammatory compounds. Combining chocolate with solid fiber-rich fruits can boost the health benefits. Nothing beats fresh fruit (fondue, anyone?), but popular dried mix-ins like cranberries and nuts (especially cashews and pistachios) can give your bar a prebiotic boost.