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"Dark chocolate saves lives," says Arthur Agatston, M.D., a preventive cardiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and an admitted chocoholic. He bases his claim on a 2006 Scandinavian study, which showed that consuming small amounts of chocolate with 70 percent or more cocoa content -- and without fattening mix-ins such as caramel, butter, or too many nuts -- significantly diminished the likelihood of heart attacks.
Derived from the cacao plant, dark chocolate contains flavonoids, which help keep blood vessels clear and flowing, says Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder increased good (HDL) cholesterol levels by 10 percent, according to a Finland study.
When buying chocolate, avoid:
-- milk chocolate
-- heavily processed bars
-- chocolate with marshmallows
-- chocolate with caramel
-- chocolate with cream
Heart-healthy nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, are OK. "The more plain the chocolate, the better," says Julia Zumpano, R.D., of the Cleveland Clinic.
Chocolate's naturally occurring serotonin and dopamine are potent antidepressants, Zumpano says. That makes this indulgence a good alternative to cigarettes and addictive drugs; its quick, blissful high won't hurt your body.
Chocolate also prompts pleasure because it contains phenylethylamine, a natural pain reliever.
Mascarpone is a buttery-rich, extra-creamy cheese with a mild flavor. Here it's used to enhance a filling of cocoa powder and vanilla, a beguiling match for crisp low-fat lemon meringue shells.
A little chocolate stirred into the chicken and bean mixture just before serving provides a rich but subtle flavor without adding lots of calories and fat.
Scientists believe nuts may play a role in protecting against heart disease. Here almonds or walnuts team with salad greens, oranges, and a hint of chocolate for a spectacular side dish.
If you've ever seen an accordion in action -- or made a paper fan -- you'll have no trouble folding and shaping the dough for this nutritious whole wheat breakfast or dessert bread.
Chocolate's plant name, Theobroma cacao, is Greek for "food of the gods." Aztecs reserved it for royalty. But in the United States, anyone can eat it -- which is probably why Americans spend $13 billion annually on chocolate. Worldwide, people eat 3 billion pounds of chocolate a year.
We taste-tested about 20 brands of chocolate that contain at least 70 percent cacao for the best heart-health benefits. When the buzz wore off, six favorites rose to the top. Look for quality chocolate in specialty food stores or shop online.
Here are our picks:
Valor Dark Chocolate 70%
El Ray, Apamate, Dark Chocolate, 73.5%
Scharffen Berger, Bittersweet, 70%
Bernard Castelain, Macaibo, 70%
Unique Origin, Guyave, 71%
E. Guittard, Quetzalcoatl, 72%