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With February 14 right around the corner, you can’t help but notice Godiva, Russell Stover, Whitman’s and Hershey’s everywhere. But before you grab one of these Valentine’s Day boxes of sweetness, consider what’s inside. Not all chocolates are created equal.

When it comes to your health, choose dark chocolate – also known as bittersweet or semisweet – which is more than 60 percent cocoa. Cocoa contains phytochemicals called flavonoids, which are also found in plants and other heart-healthy foods like green tea and red wine. Because of these chemicals, research has shown that dark chocolate:

  • Benefits your heart. A square of dark chocolate a day can decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39 percent.
  • Is an antioxidant. A recent study found that certain bacteria in your gut “feast” on chocolate and through this process produce compounds that reduce inflammation, the foundation of many ailments.

But remember, there’s a lot of chocolate out there and much of it contains added sugars and fats. The University of Michigan makes these recommendations on how to choose the healthiest chocolate:

  • Choose dark chocolate that is more than 60 percent cocoa. Be sure it’s made from cocoa butter rather than fats such as coconut, palm and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Dark chocolate has a richer, more intense flavor than milk chocolate.
  • The darker the chocolate, the healthier because phytochemicals contribute to pigment. Darker chocolate has more flavonoids, and more health benefits. White chocolate does not have the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate.
  • Different brands of chocolate have very different levels of cocoa. Choose dark chocolate made from organic or fairly traded cocoa beans.
  • Avoid drinking milk with your dark chocolate. Milk binds to the antioxidants in chocolate, making them unavailable for your body to absorb. That’s why milk chocolate does not have the health benefits of dark chocolate. Some research has shown that the benefits of dark chocolate can be enhanced by eating it with a solid fruit like acai or pomegranate. So next time you’re thinking of creating a dessert, go healthy with fruit dipped in dark chocolate.
  • Like everything else, eat chocolate in moderation. The average American eats about 10 pounds of chocolate a year, contributing to our nation’s obesity epidemic. And weight gain increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Cocoa, in comparison to highly processed milk chocolate, is low in sugar and fat. So to get the health benefits of chocolate without the guilt, add plain cocoa to dishes like oatmeal or a fruit smoothie.

Interested in learning more about heart health? UCF Health cardiologist Dr. Bernard Gros is offering a free seminar February 23 at 6:30 p.m. called “Your Healthy Heart: From Diet to Statins.” The seminar will be held at UCF Health, located at 3400 Quadrangle Blvd., Orlando, FL 32817 (facing University Blvd.). Space is limited, so registration is required. For more information and to register, visit

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