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Lower your blood pressure, hydrate your skin and reduce dental plaque -- with chocolate?

Prometheus Books

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IMAGE: Monica Bearden, R.D. view more

Credit: Prometheus Books

From Halloween through Valentine's Day, chocolate helps celebrate the season. While overindulging leads to calorie concerns, the right amounts of the right kinds of chocolate can actually make one feel and even look better. Registered dietitians Shara Aaron and Monica Bearden, authors of CHOCOLATE--A HEALTHY PASSION (Prometheus Books, $19.98), can explain chocolate's role in health and wellness, as well as its history, culture, sensory pleasures and more.

Science has proved what ancient civilizations believed so long ago: chocolate has healing powers. Research shows that eating chocolate and natural cocoa may improve vascular health, blood pressure, cognitive health, blood flow, and skin health.

According to studies by the USDA, just two tablespoons of natural cocoa have more antioxidant power than 4 cups of green tea, one cup of blueberries or one and a half glasses of red wine.

Flavanols, the compounds in chocolate found in the cocoa bean, increase blood flow. A recent study found that 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day is all that is needed for a protective effect against inflammation and subsequent cardiovascular disease*1. Another study showed that including only thirty calories worth of flavanol-rich dark chocolate per day in a usual diet significantly reduced blood pressure*2.

Flavanols also help the blood flow to your skin, making your skin look more hydrated. Cocoa may--at least temporarily--reverse smoking-related impairments of blood vessel function. There are also cognitive benefits to increased circulation.

Think chocolate is bad for your teeth? Think again--it may actually be beneficial. A study out of the University of Osaka Graduate School of Dentistry in Osaka, Japan found that after four days of rinsing with a cocoa flavanol extract without other oral hygiene methods (such as brushing or flossing) participants had decreased bacteria and plaque on their teeth*3.

While some research is conducted with isolated properties and extracts from the cocoa bean, several of the studies showing vascular health benefits uses dark chocolate products straight from the supermarket shelf. New chocolates in the marketplace may contain 90% cocoa or more, but author Shara Aaron notes that even 60% is sufficient for enjoying a smooth, not too bitter taste while still getting health benefits. Buying such chocolate in portion-controlled formats, such as tasting squares, allows one to enjoy the health benefits without overindulging in calories.

One doesn't even need to eat "chocolate" in the conventional sense to reap the health benefits of flavanols: add natural cocoa powder into foods like oatmeal or yogurt or put it into recipes and the health results will be the same.

There are psychological and sensory benefits to pampering your body's outside with chocolate too. CHOCOLATE--A HEALTHY PASSION not only contains recipes for using chocolate in foods but also in bath gels, lip balms, facial masks and soaps.

Aaron and Bearden were pioneers in helping communicate the news that dark chocolate may enhance health, helping to launch the first "heart healthy" chocolate brand for a global chocolate company in the late 1990s. In this book, they share their knowledge of chocolate well beyond the health and nutrition aspects. They show how across the globe, chocolate is part of people's lifestyles, holding a special place in holidays and celebrations. They journey to the rainforest and explore the origins of chocolate, tracing its history through the centuries, from the Maya and Aztec cultures, where the chocolate phenomenon began. Over the ages, this dark, delectable food has been viewed as a gift from the gods, as valuable as gold, a medical treatment for illness, a social indulgence for the elite, and finally a treat to be enjoyed by everyone.

The authors also reveal how to truly savor chocolate. Even the most avid chocoholics will pick up tips on how to intensify the full chocolate flavor and expand their sensual experience. Debra Miller, PhD, Director of Nutrition for The Hershey Company, says CHOCOLATE--A HEALTHY PASSION is "a must read for any true chocolate aficionado... the authors relate the compelling story of chocolate--its allure to its analysis--from their unique perspective."

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*1. Catholic University (2008, September 24). Dark Chocolate: Half A Bar Per Week May Keep Heart Attack Risk At Bay. ScienceDaily

*2. Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007 Jul 4;298 (1):49-60.

*3. Inhibitory effects of cacao bean husk extract on plaque formation in vitro and in vivo. European Journal of Oral Sciences. 2004 Vol. 112, Issue 3, 249?.

Shara Aaron, MS, RD (Yardley, PA), has contributed many health-related articles to Family Circle, Parents, American Baby, and Fitness, among other publications. She is the co-owner of NutCom Nutrition Communications, an advisory board member of American Baby, and the communications chair and editor of the New Jersey Dietetic Association Newsletter. She has acted as a corporate spokesperson to discuss the health benefits of cocoa.

Monica Bearden, RD (Tomball, TX), has published frequently on the cardiovascular health benefits of chocolate. She is the co-owner of NutCom Nutrition Communications and a nutrition consultant for the YMCA. She has worked as a nutrition scientist for a major chocolate manufacturer. Bearden ran the early research at UC Davis that showed cocoa to have health benefits and was a company spokesperson to discuss the health benefits of cocoa with media. She has published numerous papers and has given numerous presentations on the subject of cocoa and health.

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