While a mouth full of fudge can’t help but make us smile, the health benefits of chocolate are a little trickier. Along with caffeine and red wine, this sweet treat has sparked a raging debate. While the delicious dessert may be packed with antioxidants, the high sugar content of most processed bars offsets many of those benefits Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease. D., Katz, Doughty K, Ali A. Yale University Prevention Research Center, Derby, Connecticut. Antioxidants & redox signaling, 2011 Apr 7. . But worry not: There’s a way to have (chocolate) cake and eat it too.

Chocolate Cheat Sheet—Why It Matters

Cacao, the base of chocolate, can be a healthy addition to most diets. In its natural form, cacao can lower blood pressure, improve circulation, and reduce the risk for diabetes and coronary heart disease Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Katz, D.L., Doughty, K., Ali, A. Yale University Prevention Research Center, Griffin Hospital, Derby, Connecticut. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling 2011;15(10):2779-811. Cocoa, blood pressure, and vascular function. Sudano, I., Flammer, A.J., Roas, S., et al. Current Hypertension Reports 2012;14(4):279-84. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavon-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Hooper, L. Kay, C., Abelhamid, A., et al. Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012;95(3):740-51. . And don’t forget the brain: A bit of dark chocolate can give our thinking skills a boost. Keep a (small) stash in that desk drawer, too, since dark chocolate helps regulate levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A lot of these health benefits have to do with chocolate’s stock of flavonoids. These plant-based compounds protect the body by fighting the effects of free radicals, a nasty set of atoms or molecules in our bodies that contribute to annoying problems like premature aging and a number of diseases including some types of cancer, asthma, and diabetes Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. Steinberg, F.M., Bearden, M.M., Keen, C.L. Didactic Program in Dietetics, Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis, CA. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2003;103(2):215-23. The role of free radicals in disease. Florence, T.M. Centre for Environmental and Health Science Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Ophthalmology, 1995 Feb;23(1):3-7. . But don’t get chocolate wasted just yet: Some less-than-desirable health effects may be lurking at the bottom of that bag of M&Ms.

The Bitter(sweet) Truth—The Answer/Debate

Extensive processing, as well as added sugar and milk, often strip cacao of its nutritional one-two punch, causing a potential superfood rockstar to drop to a fallen idol status. Luckily, healthy options exist, giving chocolate a chance to redeem itself. When there’s a choice of white, milk, or dark chocolate, go dark. Whole milk makes up the majority of milk chocolate and may interfere with the body’s absorption of antioxidants Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized control trial. Taubert, D., Roesen, R., Lehmann, C. Department of Pharmacology, University Hospital of Cologne, Cologne, Germany. The Journal of the American Medical Association 2007 Jul 4;298(1):49-60. . To stave off added fat and excess sugar, look for dark chocolate with a cacao content above 70 percent—in fact, the higher the cacao content, the better. But be warned: Dark chocolate tends to taste bitterer than its milky counterpart, so if choosing super-dark varieties, opt for bars with some healthy add-ins like almonds or dried cherries for a flavor (and nutrition) boost. Another chocolate worth going cuckoo for is raw chocolate, a dairy-free, unprocessed option. Raw chocolate bars are often sweetened with agave or palm sugar, which have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar. Raw chocolate packs a distinct, deep flavor paired with a ruthless stab at the wallet, but luckily, a little goes a long way. Look for raw chocolate at local health food stores in bar or powder form. Heat the powder with water or almond milk, and sweeten with stevia for some homemade hot chocolate. To get the benefits of cacao without the bulk, reach for cacao nibs, dry-roasted cacao beans with a nutty flavor. Try sprinkling the nibs on top of a dessert or add them to a smoothie for a little extra kick. At the end of the day, even the most nutritious kinds of chocolate are healthful only in moderation. So this National Chocolate Day (and every day after), feel free to indulge, but don’t overdo it! Our Favorite Chocolate Recipes from Around the Web:

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