The Chocolate Wars

Let's agree to agree: chocolate is delicious, and it's also good for you. But, like all great love stories, this one has a twist: in order to reap any health benefits, the chocolate you eat should be dark, dark, dark.

Here are some Real Facts paired with some Julie Facts about dark chocolate.

- Dark chocolate contains antioxidants and helps to lower blood pressure... but only in people of a certain age who already have mild to high blood pressure. I have pretty low blood pressure, and I like to think that's because I have been eating chocolate all my life. I find that eating dark chocolate relaxes me and that's why I always have some on my person. I also like to think that I am not "of a certain age" yet.

- If you eat the recommended 100-gram, 450-calorie chocolate bar
a day, you could significantly lower your blood pressure... and/or you could gain a lot of weight. Gaining weight might make you stressed out and, therefore, elevate your blood pressure. So don't eat a whole chocolate bar every day, please, unless you are under medical supervision or unless you for some reason want to get chubby to fit back into your pregnancy jeans.

- Did you know that you cannot eat that dark chocolate with a glass of milk, because the milk actually counteracts the benefits? This is why I try to wash down my dark chocolate with a glass of red wine, thereby doubling my antioxidant intake and maximizing my chances of clean living. Not to brag, but I'm super healthy like that.

- According to a new study, "more frequent chocolate-eaters had smaller BMIs, a ratio of height and weight that's used to measure obesity." This study doesn't even mention that the chocolate has to be dark! What's next to magically improve my life? A study finding that unicorns are real?

Chocolate makers read the science section of the New York Times just like we do, and so they know that we know that dark is the way to go. Ever since hearing that the average chocolate-eating public might start buying dark, these modern-day Willy Wonkas have been hard at work perfecting the taste of high performing, high-cocoa-percentage chocolates. If you've ever paid for items at a gourmet deli or Barnes and Noble, your eye has probably passed over the point-of-purchase displays of chocolate bars that whisper, "Buy me" and "Eat me." You can even buy a chocolate bar while paying for your bras at Lord & Taylor, though I'm not sure why you'd want to. But you can! I bet you are a discriminating consumer like me, noting evidence of the artisanal chocolate bar craze, and wondering how the different brands stack up. Maybe you've even sampled a few.

If you don't mind me asking, how fierce is your chocolate bar? Can you withstand 72% pure cacao? Do you like "intense dark chocolate," as one Balducci's bar says, or "really intense dark chocolate," like another bar reads? What's next after that, I wonder... holy hell chocolate? Crazy f*&%ing strong chocolate? We-dare-you-to-eat-this-and-talk-straight-afterwards chocolate? Some of these bars are downright scary.

So, to take the fear and the sting out of the morass of options, I would like to bring you the best of the bunch, in a very unscientific taste test. I have been conducting this hard work over the past few weeks, just in time for bathing suit season.

Godiva offers 3 dark options, a 72% plain, a 72% with almonds, and a 50% with sea salt, each $5.00. I'm a sucker for sea salt, so while I was buying some books at Barnes & Noble (a store lovingly re-named Nook & Godiva by my friend, comedienne/writer Karen Bergreen) I grabbed a bar. It was super-yum. I now carry Godiva dark chocolate pearls in my handbag. (25 calories for 8 pieces!)

Vosges Haut Chocolate wishes you peace, love and chocolate with every bar and actually comes with instructions for "How to enjoy an exotic candy bar" on the back label. The steps include "breathe, see, smell, snap," and, finally, they let you "taste." Still being a sucker for salt, I went for the Black Salt Caramel Bar. This bar should come with instructions saying not to eat it while driving a car because I ended up with caramel all over my hands and on the steering wheel. Weighing in at 70% cacao, this bar did have a "glossy shine" to it, as the instructions suggest a good bar should, with a smooth and silky texture. Vosges has the most creative combinations out there. It would be fun to try a bunch of them with friends as an after-dinner treat, instead of a more traditional dessert at a dinner party or BBQ. Break apart some bars!

Balducci's makes several options that try to psyche you out with their sheer intensity. I found the 54% dark chocolate with salt a bit too salty, although the more I ate of it, the better it tasted. The "really intense" bars also come with pomegranate and raspberry flavoring. Balducci's carries about 400 kinds of chocolate bars, though, so you can go nuts... or nut-free.

There are also several of what I'd call "Feel Good, Do Good" brands out there, including Sweetriot and Prestat. Both brands are committed to fair trade, helping farmers in Latin America and West Africa. The Prestat 71% Dark Chocolate English Mint Crunch has what I'd call a "grown up" flavor that I imagine British royalty enjoy. Sweetriot's Pure 60% Dark Chocolate with Crunchy Nibs had a strong, earthy, bitter flavor that I can't honestly say I liked, but maybe you will. I had to wash that one down with some Godiva. Sweetriot also makes an 85% dark chocolate that I was too afraid to try.

My favorite dark chocolate treats are the Brookside fruit and dark chocolate pieces, which can be found at most health food markets. There are several flavors, from Gogi with Raspberry to Pomegranate and Açaí. They are all delicious and they make me feel like I am eating fruit when I am definitely not. They come in a handy re-sealable baggie for snacking on-the-go.

So... where do you stand on The Chocolate Wars?