Up Close and Edible: Chocolate

It's official: chocolate can actually be good for your heart. It's got antioxidant-rich phytochemicals called flavanols. Alas, though, it's also extremely "energy dense"—that is, fattening. We're not talking celery here. A pound of milk chocolate contains about 2,300 calories. "It's OK to have some chocolate sometimes, but it's still not a health food," says registered dietitian Lona Sandon, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, "Yes, it might have some healthful antioxidants, but it's still a treat food."

Still, researchers think the cocoa bean may improve blood flow and even reduce the formation of clots. Some heartening evidence: the Kuna Indians of Panama, heavy consumers of cocoa, boast an unusually low amount of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Harvard researchers found that chocolate eaters actually lived a year longer than abstainers. And contrary to popular belief, chocolate does not cause acne. In fact, a small study recently showed an improvement in the appearance of the skin of chocolate-eating women.

Not all chocolate is created equal. In general, darker is better because it contains more flavanols and less sugar than milk chocolate. Dark chocolates include high-end products like Valrhona and Lindt and lower-end ones now offered by Hershey's and Dove. Mars sells a CocoaVia line of chocolate made in a way that retains the flavanols. Its nutrients include folic acid and vitamins B-6, B-12, C and E. "Like everything else, don't overdo it," says France Steinberg, associate professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis. One original dark chocolate CocoaVia bar contains 100 calories, 60 of them from fat.

If you're making hot chocolate, use cocoa powder that has not been "dutched." The dutch treatment destroys phytochemicals. If you want to go organic, see the Organic Trade Association's O'Mama Report for a list of manufacturers who use beans grown without chemicals. If you want to support "fair trade" chocolate, made with beans grown organically in co-ops and family farms, visit Global Exchange's Fair Trade Web site.

Finally, if you think chocolate tastes heavenly, you're not alone. The Aztec Indians thought a prophet brought cocoa bean seeds from paradise.