February is almost here and with it comes Valentine's Day and American Heart Month.  It's a good time to be reminded that we no longer should feel guilty about eating a little chocolate. That's right, chocolate can be good for you!

    The secret behind the delightful taste is the cacao bean (no mystery).  Packed with healthy chemicals (like flavonoids and theobromine), this little bean is filled with amazing potential. The big problem is that cacao on its own is bitter, dry and has a pungent taste.

    Recent research has shown cocoa to be beneficial in many areas; diabetes prevention, stress reduction, weight loss, heart health, sun protection, cough relief and higher intelligence. 
    The potential benefits of chocolate and current scientific evidence have melted away some of the misconceptions of chocolate. Researchers write, there is "rather strong evidence" that cocoa consumption improves several important cardiovascular risk factors "and likely reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease."  In fact, over that last 30 years, they have discovered that cocoa and dark chocolate, which originate from plants containing nutrients beneficial to humans, now are considered a functional food. 

     Foods that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition are considered functional foods. In the case of the phytonutrient found in chocolate called flavonoids, they may help us in many ways; cardiovascular health, improve insulin sensitivity and boost cognition. This ranks chocolate high on my list of favorite functional foods.  Chocolate joins the ranks with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. But wait, there's more good news. Cocoa and dark chocolate contain many vitamins and minerals as well (potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamins A, C, E and the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid).

     So let’s get down to the good stuff!  Yes, chocolate is good for you, BUT don’t take that as a license to devour pounds of it.  Read on!

     Before you grab your favorite chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavonoids.  When chocolate is processed into some of the familiar choices on the supermarket shelf it goes through many steps.  The more steps in processing the fewer the flavonoids, leaving you with fewer benefits that chocolate can provide.  Look at the label and if the chocolate has been ‘Dutch’ processed, there are very few of the flavonoids left and the benefits to you have been stripped from your chocolate.  Stick with dark chocolate and you will likely gain more of the flavonoids benefits.  Remember to read your label about the processing and keep the following guidelines in mind.

Type of Chocolate                                               Mg Flavonols    Calories
1.3 oz Dark Chocolate Bars, Average*:                    82 mg          187
1.3 oz Milk Chocolate Bars, Average*:                     42 mg          198
1 TBSP Unsweetened Cocoa Powder, Average*:     75 mg            12
*USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory

Keeping those numbers in mind.

Here are some great ways to enjoy chocolate for your Valentine’s Day celebration!

Chocolate Covered Strawberries – truly a classic with delightful taste

Chocolate Fondue – enjoy with all your favorite fruits or cake squares

Pork Chops Mole – the subtle chocolate undertones makes this a delicious, smooth choice

Grilled Chocolate Sandwich – a special favorite for the kids

Chocolate Waffle Cookies – a treat for young and young at heart

Visit the dessert section for more ideas!