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More Heartening News for Chocolate Lovers

By Nancy Johnson, Tribune Staff Writer

SUNDAY, November 12: (South Bend Tribune) —  You won't catch me throwing away my leftover Halloween candy just yet. I'm picking through the Jolly Ranchers and Smarties for the good stuff: chocolate.

Not just because chocolate tastes so good: Heaven knows it does. It's because evidence keeps rolling in linking chocolate with health benefits.

When I was at the American Dietetic Association food and nutrition conference in Denver last month, one of the first -- and best attended -- sessions was on chocolate and health.

Some of the new research is coming from the candymaker Mars Inc., which sponsored this session.

Many plant foods are rich in flavonoids, which appear to act as antioxidants in the bloodstream to protect tissues from certain diseases, explained Harold Schmitz, group research manager at Mars. Chocolate, he said, is rich in these flavonoids.

Many studies have linked flavonoids and chocolate in particular with cardiovascular health. Researchers at the University of California at Davis found that chocolate consumption inhibits blood platelets from clumping together in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. Other studies show that cocoa-powder extract lowers levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, according to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Schmitz cited a Harvard University study that found that men who consumed chocolate at least three times a month lived longer than those who abstained. But many more studies are needed before any sweeping health claims are made, he said. "It is easy to craft an exciting story out of limited background," he said.

Still, chocolate is shaping up as a fabulous functional food, said Elizabeth Applegate, a nutrition professor at the University of California at Davis. Even though chocolate is rich in flavonoids, there are obvious concerns with calories and fat, she said.

"Even though most of us grew up thinking chocolate is an indulgence, it actually fits in quite easily to a healthy diet," she said.

To get the most flavonoid punch, Applegate suggested working a sensible amount of dark chocolate into the daily diet. Dark chocolate has a higher concentration of flavonoids than milk chocolate, and white chocolate has none, she said.

A 1.3-ounce dark Dove chocolate bar, she said, has 200 calories and 12 grams of fat, seven grams of which is saturated fat.

For example, a good pair of antioxidant-rich snacks would be a Dove bar and a cup of cranberry juice daily, she said.

Audience members asked if all dark chocolate has the same level of flavonoids. The panelists replied that their work used Mars products - - the dark Dove chocolate in particular -- and they couldn't comment on other types of chocolate.

But Mars is making an effort to keep the flavonoid levels in its products as high as possible. The company recently developed a special processing system to minimize the flavonoid loss that usually takes place when the cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted and treated with alkali (Dutch processing). Mars products, such as M&M's, Dove chocolate and Snickers bars, that are marked with the Cocoapro logo were processed in this way.

So how much chocolate should you eat each day for good health? The speakers at this session deftly avoided that one, claiming that there is no recommended serving size at this point.

Still, the panelists seems to be thrilled to be delivering good news about such an adored food.

"Now that the health benefits of chocolate have been discovered, I feel my whole existence has been vindicated," Applegate said.