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Health Benefits of Chocolate and What to Buy for the Holidays

Whether it’s the season for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, or an anniversary, chocolate is one of the most popular gifts to give the people you love. But if the ones you love are watching their waistlines or trying to cut back on sweets, these gifts can make the holidays a little awkward.

Although chocolate is often considered an indulgence and a diet splurge, some types of chocolate are better for you than others. So, just in time for the holidays, here are some of the health benefits of chocolate and the healthiest types of chocolate to choose.

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Where Does Chocolate Come From?

Chocolate originates from cacao trees, which typically grow in warm and rainy tropical areas near the equator. Chocolate has been harvested and consumed throughout history, dating back to the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and many cultures have savored its sweetness since then. To produce the chocolate we know and love today, the seeds of this tree’s fruit are ground and roasted to create a paste, which is heated and cooled after being mixed with milk and sugar.

Healthy Properties of Chocolate

Chocolate comes in different forms that have varying levels of cocoa. Dark chocolate has the most cocoa – typically over 70 percent. Meanwhile, milk chocolate and white chocolate have far less cocoa. This matters because the natural health benefits of chocolate lie in the cocoa, which contains a group of antioxidants called flavonoids. You can certainly get the flavonoids your body needs through fruits and vegetables, as well as tea. But in moderation, dark chocolate can give the body an antioxidant boost too.

Possible Benefits of Chocolate

Human beings around the world love chocolate, so it should come as no surprise that countless research studies have been funded to uncover new and promising benefits of this delicious food. In addition to providing a source of antioxidants for the body, chocolate has also been studied for its potential to improve blood circulation and blood pressure, as well as to balance cholesterol. Furthermore, some researchers have concluded that dark chocolate may lower a person’s risk of heart disease, improve brain functioning, and even protect the skin from sun damage. Chocolate also contains stimulants, such as caffeine and theobromine, which may reduce fatigue and boost mood.

Photo credit: Marco Verch via Flickr

Shopping for Healthier Chocolate

No matter the occasion, a general rule to follow is that the darker the chocolate, the healthier it likely is. Also, look for dark chocolate that has the fewest number of ingredients to avoid additives and preservatives that negate the food’s promising health benefits. Dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70 percent or higher is the best way to go, but don’t forget to compare sugar contents in chocolate bars too.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of chocolate being sold in stores today is far from healthy, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be 100 percent off limits. As with most things in life, moderation is key, and a square or two of a chocolate bar after dinner to satisfy your sweet tooth is totally acceptable for most people. Alternatively, you can make your own homemade hot chocolate with cacao powder and no added cream or sugar to warm up on a cold winter’s day.

What’s your favorite way to eat chocolate around the holidays?

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