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According to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, over 36 million boxes of chocolates are sold each year around Valentine's Day. So February is a month when most of us end up being offered a chocolate goodie or two.

If you don’t go overboard, it turns out that chocolate could be something you may want to eat year round – at least in moderation. Far more than just a sweet treat, chocolate is gaining a reputation for having health benefits, too.

For example, University of California at Davis researchers have identified compounds called flavonoids in dark chocolate that decrease the "stickiness" of platelets, a type of cell that plays a key role in blood clotting. That suggests chocolate could help prevent strokes and heart attacks. Dark chocolate has been found to lower blood pressure, as well.

What’s more, the association between chocolate and love may be more than a romantic myth. Scientists have found some natural chemicals in chocolate have an impact on the brain’s neurotransmitters and can produce a lift in mood similar to the feeling of being in love.

How to enjoy chocolate as part of a healthy diet

The beneficial side of chocolate doesn’t mean it’s a totally healthy indulgence. Chocolate lacks fiber and important vitamins and minerals you get from eating fruits and vegetables. And while the milk, dark and bittersweet varieties of chocolate all contains a unique kind of saturated fat -- stearic acid -- which doesn't raise blood cholesterol levels, they are loaded with calories. That means chocolate, no matter how good it is, it can pack on pounds if you eat too much.

The key to enjoying chocolate and its potential benefits is to understand portion control and to read labels. Always check to see how many calories and how much actual chocolate you are getting in any product labeled “chocolate” or “chocolate flavored”. For instance, commercial candy is loaded with sugar, often contains artificial flavorings and other non-healthy ingredients, and is usually packed with calories. Instead a candy bar, consider adding small amounts of plain dark chocolate to your daily diet.

Another way to eat chocolate wisely: have a few chocolate kisses instead of an entire chocolate candy bar. A typical chocolate kiss has only 26 calories and one gram of saturated fat while chocolate bars, depending on the ingredients, can have a couple of hundred calories each. If you crave chocolate flavor, use cocoa powder when cooking homemade goodies – it has less fat and calories than regular chocolate. One ounce of cocoa powder has 58 calories, three grams of fat, and no saturated fat but still has all the healthy antioxidants found in chocolate.

Understanding chocolate’s ingredients and varieties

The National Confectioners Association's Chocolate Council, which represents trade associations that process cocoa and make chocolate, explains that chocolate is a natural product made of these ingredients:

  • Chocolate liquor is made of cocoa butter and cocoa solids naturally present in cocoa (also called cacao) beans.
  • Cocoa butter is the natural fat from the cocoa bean; it enhances chocolate’s flavor.
  • Sugar.
  • Vanilla or vanillin and other flavors.
  • Lecithin, often made from soy, is an emulsifier blends all the ingredients together.
  • Milk is sometimes added to specific varieties.
  • Fruits, nuts and other additives create specialty chocolates.

Varieties of chocolate products include:

  • Dark chocolate is made of chocolate liquor, extra cocoa butter, sugar, an emulsifier (usually lecithin) and vanilla or other flavorings. Darker chocolates typically have a higher percent cocoa, which means they have a higher proportion of cocoa beans in them than other chocolates do. This variety may contain milk fat to soften the texture, but not enough to add a milky flavor. Dark chocolate also is known as semi-sweet chocolate.
  • Unsweetened chocolate, or baking chocolate, is made from 100 percent chocolate liquor. The taste is typically a bit bitter and astringent. Also called unsweetened chocolate, it contains no sugar and is used often in dessert recipes that call for sugar as a separate ingredient.
  • Milk chocolate has the same basic ingredients as the dark variety but with added dry milk solids. The taste is sweet and creamy. Milk chocolate, which is the most common kind of chocolate for eating, has at least 10 percent cocoa liquor by weight and contains at least 12 percent milk solids.
  • White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, minus the cocoa solids. Other ingredients include sugar, milk solids, lecithin, vanilla, and sometimes other flavorings. White chocolate has at least 20 percent cocoa butter, 14 percent milk solids, and no more than 55 percent sugar.
  • Bittersweet chocolate has the highest percentage of chocolate liquor and may contain extra cocoa butter. Both bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate must contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, but bittersweet usually contains a minimum of 50 percent cocoa.
  • Chocolate-flavored coatings may contain chocolate liquor and/or cocoa powder, but they use vegetable fats to supplement or replace cocoa butter. These coatings made with vegetable fats cannot legally be called “chocolate,” but they can be labeled “made with chocolate” if they are created with chocolate liquor.
  • Cocoa butter has no connection with dairy butter. Instead, it’s the fat naturally present in cocoa beans. It’s credited with giving chocolate its unique, smooth feeling in the mouth.
  • Cocoa is made from pressing chocolate liquor, the liquid that comes from grinding the nibs or centers of cocoa beans, to separate out the cocoa butter. The chocolate solids that remain are ground to make dry cocoa powder used in hot cocoa mixes and baking.
  • Dutch process refers to chocolate nibs treated with an alkaline solution to neutralize acidity. This process darkens the color of the resulting cocoa and produces a milder chocolate flavor.
  • Organic chocolate is grown without agricultural chemicals.
  • Raw chocolate is made from unroasted cocoa beans.
  • Sweet chocolate is a combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and sugar and contains at least 15 percent chocolate liquor.

Sherry Baker is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She last wrote the article Breakfast Really is the Most Important Meal of the Day for Synergy.