Cocoa powder

Cocoa powder has flavonoids that aid in heart health.

My husband, Jeff, loves chocolate in many forms, but dark chocolate is his favorite. That's good because dark chocolate has been shown to decrease heart disease and stroke risks. Small amounts can help increase blood flow, reduce blood pressure, increase antioxidants, and improve HDL, or good, cholesterol.

These heart-protective benefits are because of the antioxidant activity of flavonoids that are found in cocoa. Antioxidants keep us healthy by repairing daily cell damage in our bodies to prevent health issues like heart disease.

Flavonoids are also found in red wine, green tea and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa, or cacao, is thought to have the most flavonoids and best heart-protective benefit.

Cacao generally refers to the chocolate beans prior to processing. After processing, cocoa is the powder form, although the words are often used interchangeably.

Lindt and Ghirardelli are among the brands that offer dark chocolate with 70 percent or more cacao.

Hershey's has extra-dark chocolate squares with 60 percent cacao, but the brand's special dark chocolate candy bar has only 45 percent cacao. The label of their Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate Kisses states that it's a good source of flavanol antioxidants, but cacao percentage isn't listed.

Dove dark chocolate has nutrition claims similar to the kisses on some of their products. The small boxes of Godiva chocolates did not list any claims.

For heart-health benefits, enjoy a 1-ounce portion of a high-percentage cacao dark chocolate three times per week. For example, 1 ounce (about three small squares) of a large 3.5-ounce Lindt Excellence 70% Dark Chocolate bar provides 179 calories and 14 grams fat.

To keep calories under control, have your dark chocolate in place of a usual treat, not in addition to it.

Milk chocolate contains only 7 percent to 35 percent cocoa, while white chocolate contains none. Neither helps decrease heart disease risk.

Powdered cocoa is a good source of flavonoids, too. It has twice the antioxidants as red wine, and three times the amount in green tea. For a treat, try the Cocoa Meringue Kisses recipe, which uses cocoa for its chocolate flavor.

Unfortunately, packaged cocoa mixes don't contain many of the flavonoids associated with heart health. Cocoa has a strong taste, so some brands go through an alkalizing process to yield a milder flavor. Most of the flavonoids are lost in the process. Those labels list cocoa as Dutch-processed or processed with alkali.

It you want hot chocolate that's better for your heart, make it with 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa, sugar or sugar substitute to taste, one cup 1%-2% milk, and a dash of vanilla extract.

Show someone you love them this Valentine's Day with a little bit of dark chocolate. Save some calories by tossing in some flowers, jewelry, movie tickets, or whatever your budget can afford. (Hint: It's next Tuesday!)

Cocoa Meringue Kisses

For a special treat, eat these delectable morsels right from the oven. Pop a whole kiss in your mouth and savor the taste of warm melting chocolate. But use some restraint. Altogether, they add up to a lot of empty sugar calories.

Makes approximately 32 kisses

2 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons cocoa

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a cookie sheet with foil, dull side up.

With an electric beater, whip egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy.

Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Beat until whites form stiff peaks.

Fold in cocoa.

Drop meringue onto foil by teaspoonfuls in the shape of a candy kiss.

Bake for 20 minutes. Wait for a few minutes, then slide a knife or spatula under kisses and they will lift off foil.

Nutrients per kiss: 20 calories, no fat grams, 15 carbohydrate grams.

Dr. Ron Goor and Nancy Goor, from "Eater's Choice Low-Fat Cookbook"

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