The Bittersweet Truth About Chocolate

Can a chocolate a day help keep the doctor away?

While I have to answer that with a qualified yes, I can say with certainty that, along with a dozen roses, chocolate is a wise investment with Valentine's Day. Choose carefully, and a gift of chocolate is not only heart-warming, but in small amounts may be heart healthy, too.

Not all chocolate provides the same healthy advantage. For maximum benefit, toss aside the heart-shaped assortment of nougats and caramels, and instead splurge on the highest quality dark chocolate you can find. Be sure it has at least 70 percent cocoa content. It is less festive, but a lot better for your heart than the average bonbon. Stay away from chocolates that have been fortified with sugar and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, which will negate the health effects.

Chocolate can be complex business. This decadent treat is packed with hundreds of chemical compounds and 800 different identifiable flavors and scents. I keep my chocolate fix simple - tossing a handful of M&Ms into a healthy trail mix. I'm considering a switch to dark chocolate M&Ms.

Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, pigments found in many vegetables and fruits, especially ones dark in color like blueberries. They are also found in red wine, grapes, red apples and some teas. These act as antioxidants helping to neutralize artery-clogging free radicals. They fight heart disease by lowering blood pressure and lowering the levels of oxidized LDL - or "bad cholesterol," while minimally raising the levels of the "good cholesterol" HDL. There also is some evidence that dark chocolate can reduce blood clots much like the effect of aspirin.

That's potent stuff - which means you don't need much of it to reap the benefit. About an ounce and a half should do it. More than that, and you start to lose the benefit because you can gain weight, which will neutralize any positive cardiovascular effects. Dark chocolate, being made from cocoa butter contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that does not raise cholesterol like many other saturated fats, but does contain calories.

Bad news for milk chocolate lovers: Milk interferes with the absorption of the flavonoid antioxidants. Milk chocolate, or a glass of milk on the side, counteracts the benefits.

While chocolate has been long lauded as an aphrodisiac, that is mostly due to the luxurious texture and delicious flavor. Chocolate does contain phenethylamine, or PEA, a chemical that is often credited with releasing endorphins in the brain, substances that also may be responsible for that pulse-racing sense of "being in love." However, it contains only a small amount that is quickly metabolized by the body before it could have any major effect.

There is some research that suggests that a bit of dark chocolate can be relaxing. A study last year found dark chocolate reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and "fight-or-flight" hormones known as catecholamines in highly stressed people. The study was conducted at the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland - by the same company that brought us the famous Crunch bar - and was published in the Journal of Proteome Research. It will be nice to see this study confirmed by a research group that is independent of the chocolate industry.

Relaxation should be part of the chocolate experience. When enjoying something decadent, go for it. There are entire guides written online about how to properly consume and enjoy chocolate. Their advice boils down to: look for a glossy coat (the white discoloration on a chocolate bar often indicates it was stored improperly, melted then hardened again). High-quality chocolate should snap satisfyingly when you break or bite into it. Lastly, let it melt in your mouth to get the full effect of the smooth texture and flavor.

The fat and sugar that make the otherwise bitter cocoa taste so great are laden with calories - about 135 calories per ounce for dark chocolate. Make up for those calories somewhere, either by cutting out another sweet from your diet or on the treadmill. Keep in mind that a little Theobroma cacao - the scientific name for cocoa, which translates into "food of the gods" - does go a long way.

Another good way to save calories is by sharing with someone you love. After all, Valentine's Day is just around the corner.