Dark chocolate is derived from the plant Theobroma cacao. This plant is a rich source of flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants associated with reduction in the risk of heart attacks and cancer. They also help maintain strong bones, teeth and healthy skin. The percentage of cocoa solids is critical in providing the benefits of chocolate to health. Dark chocolate (bittersweet or semisweet chocolate) has up to 75 percent cocoa solids, whereas milk chocolate has approximately 20 percent cocoa solids and white chocolate has no cocoa solids. Additional health benefits of dark chocolate include:

•  Reduced cardiovascular mortality. In a 15-year study of elderly men, there was a 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality and a 47 percent reduction in all cases of mortality for those eating the highest amount of cocoa compared to those eating the least amount of cocoa.

•  Improved mood. Theobromine is a stimulant in cocoa, and is often confused with caffeine. Theobromine and caffeine have different effects on the body. Theobromine has a mild, lasting stimulant with a mood improving effect, while caffeine has a strong immediate effect and increases awareness.
•  Reduced blood clots. Dark chocolate has more cocoa than milk chocolate and thus more epicatechin, a strong flavoniod that keeps cholesterol from sticking in the blood vessels. This results in reduced risk of blood clots.
•  Plant derived. Dark chocolate has more flavinoids than green tea, black tea, red wine and blueberries. Chocolate (dark or mild) is plant-derived, as are fruits and vegetables.

•  Neutral on blood cholesterol. Premium grade dark chocolate contains only cocoa butter, which has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol.
•  Remains healthy after being processed. Chocolate companies have learned to make dark chocolate that keeps 95 percent of the flavinoids, thus keeping the health benefits in tact.
•  While a little dark chocolate is good, a lot is not better. Chocolate is still loaded with calories. You must fit it into a balanced diet. When adding chocolate calories, you need to cut other discretionary calories. It is always best to keep each food group in your diet including plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats such as poultry and pork, dried beans and whole grains.
West Africa grows 70 percent of the world’s cocoa crop. The Netherlands is the leading processor of cocoa, with the United States following in second place. To make 2.2 pounds of chocolate, 300-600 beans must be processed. For cooking, semi-sweet chocolate chips can be used as well as mini-sized dark chocolate bars. Recipes with high amounts of fat and sugar are not counterbalanced by the beneficial effects of the cocoa, so be careful when choosing recipes.

By: Nedra Christensen - Nov. 29, 2010