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Chocolate lovers invade New York!

Fans and purveyors gather for New York's eighth annual Chocolate Show. "Today" contributor Phil Lempert shares the latest on these luscious treats.

It's by far the best of the food shows: New York's annual Chocolate Show. Now in its eighth year, the show starts tonight with a fund-raising gala centered around a sexy, hip fashion show where the best chocolatiers team up with the hottest fashion designers to create wearable chocolate creations.

Then on Thursday morning, and for the next three days, tens of thousands of New Yorkers cram into the Metropolitan Pavilion to taste the best chocolates and discuss the nuances between bites.

Why is chocolate worthy of its own fashion show and taste extravaganza? Do you really need to ask?

There's something undeniably mystical and irresistible about chocolate. The word itself is sensual and romantic. The creamy, silky texture, the deep, dark, elegant color, the exquisitely sweet, rich flavor, the tantalizing aroma — the seductive characteristics of chocolate can arouse the senses and send one's pulse racing to new heights. The experience of a forbidden piece of pure chocolate deliberately melting on the tip of your tongue is sheer ecstasy, one of life's most pleasurable moments. No wonder chocolate is often referred to as decadent and why it was forbidden in strict religious groups. Indulging in the luxurious stuff feels so good it must be bad!

And most important, chocolate is one of the world's oldest and perhaps healthiest foods.

Over 3,000 years ago, Mayans and Aztecs of the Americas cultivated cacao beans from the tree Cacao theobroma, from which chocolate is made. New research shows that the enticing chocolate morsels are potent little packages of health conferring chemicals. Chocolate may prevent free radical damage that can lead to cancer, prevent heart disease, enhance our immune system, and give us a feeling of well-being.

Like some other plant foods, chocolate is chock-full of a wide range of antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, including the procyanidins epicatechin and catechin. Fruit, vegetables, wine, and tea have polyphenolic flavonoids as well but, amazingly, polyphenols are found in much higher abundance in chocolate and cocoa. The amount of polyphenols in milk chocolate is equivalent to that of five servings of fruits and vegetables. The following is the measurement of the polyphenol content in 1.25 ounces of cocoa products:

  • Milk chocolate 300 mg
  • Dark chocolate 700 mg
  • Cocoa powder 1,300 mg

Polyphenols are antioxidants that help the body's cells resist damage from free radicals, which are formed in normal body processes as well as by environmental pollution, poor diet, alcohol and drug use, and smoking. Free radicals can damage cells, thereby causing cancer and accelerated aging of the body systems. Polyphenols in cocoa also minimize the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease such as heart attack and stroke. Reducing the oxidation rate of LDL cholesterol may be just as important as reducing the level of LDL cholesterol. Polyphenols also help inhibit platelet aggregation and activation, meaning they help prevent platelets from clumping together, therefore reducing the risk of arteriosclerosis. Cocoa polyphenols also seem to thin the blood, which slows the rate of coagulation, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Now that the myth that chocolate is bad for us is behind us, let's talk about what it is about chocolate that makes so many of us swoon. Sometimes we get these intense cravings for chocolate. We're feeling moody and irritable, even depressed, but once we eat some good chocolate, we feel better. It turns out that chocolate is a mood-enhancer after all. Chocolate contains phenethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the nervous system, triggering the release of endorphins, opiate-like compounds that dull pain and give a sense of well-being. But the jury is still out on whether the high fat and sugar content are also factors for this response. There are also chemicals in chocolate that increase the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly associated with feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure. Additionally, chocolate can boost brain levels of serotonin — the happy neurotransmitter — especially in women, who tend to be more sensitive to chocolate than men. And yet another way chocolate can make us feel good is by inhibiting the natural breakdown of anandamide, a neurotransmitter normally found in small amounts in the brain, which can produce a feeling of euphoria. Scientists question whether the concentrations of these chemicals present in chocolate can actually produce a significant effect on our moods. But many women will contend that, research or no research, satisfying a chocolate craving can work wonders.

Sounds like eating chocolate has a lot of benefits. But it sounds too good to be true. What about the fat and sugar in chocolate? Aren't they bad for our hearts and detrimental to our waistlines? It is true that chocolate tends to be high in fat and sugar. But depending on the kind of fat in the chocolate, it might not be too hard on your arteries. Good quality chocolates are made with cocoa butter, a fat comprised of approximately one-third proportions of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat like that found in olive oil, and stearic acid and palmitic acid, which are saturated fats. Oleic acid has been shown to lower both total and LDL cholesterol. And interestingly, although stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid (SFA), unlike other SFAs, it does not seem to affect blood cholesterol. Palmitic acid, however, does raise blood cholesterol, so even good quality chocolate should be eaten in moderation. Remember, not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, so be sure to read labels.

Chocolate contains stimulants such as caffeine. One 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate contains about 30 milligrams of caffeine, milk chocolate contains 10 mg, and an 8-ounce serving of hot cocoa contains 5 mg. In comparison, an 8-ounce serving of brewed coffee contains 135 mg of caffeine, 12 ounces of Mountain Dew contains about 56 mg, and cola contains about 35 mg. Another caffeine-like stimulant in chocolate is theobromine, which can cause fatal cardiac stress in dogs, so be sure to keep the chocolate away from Fido. Theobromine is actually weaker than caffeine, and it doesn't have a strong effect on humans. Chocolate also contains healthful nutrients, such as the minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper, which are essential for normal biological functions, growth, metabolism, and oxygen transport.

When you do want to indulge, choose the darkest, richest chocolate you can find made with quality cocoa butter. Chocolatiers such as many of the European chocolatiers who were at the New York Chocolate Show (and listed below) make dark chocolates containing 70 percent or more cocoa. The average chocolate bar contains about 40 percent. The higher the cocoa content the more beneficial the bar.

The universal love affair with chocolate will continue. And now just to make your mouth water, here are my picks of the best!

Fairytale Brownies:  New Magic Morsels — When you're looking for just a little bit of chocolate satisfaction, new 1.5" X 1.5" Magic Morsels make the perfect treat.  These are the same Belgian chocolate brownies that made Fairytale famous — just a bit smaller.  Available in original and sugar free varieties. Retail 1.2 pounds, $26.

NewTree:  NewTree’s six luscious Belgian chocolate bars combine pure chocolate with wholesome fruit and botanicals for delightful confections that fuel your body and well-being. NewTree chocolate bars are made with the highest quality, all natural ingredients.  NewTree Dark chocolates contain a luxurious 73 percent cocoa and are very rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. NewTree Milk chocolates contain a silky smooth 34 percent cocoa. The milk chocolate bars are meant to nourish your senses and help you relax and reduce stress.

Six varieties:Pleasure — pure dark chocolate, high in minerals and fiber, and vitamin D Renew — rich in antioxidants, as it contains dark chocolate, grapes and black currants. Rich in flavenoids, a class of polyphenols, which are known to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Black currant contains Vitamin D and ellagic acid, a powerful antioxidant that fights against cancer agents present in our bodies. Forgiveness — containing dark chocolate, lemon and a type of cactus fiber that helps metabolism and burns fat Vigor — a stimulating blend of chocolate, coffee and guarana, a small berry grown in the Amazon basin Tranquility — a delightful combination of milk chocolate, lavender and lime blossom — all of which help with relaxation. Also a mild anti-depressant because chocolate stimulates the production of serotonin. Rejoice — Unwind with Rejoice, a bar that combines the lovely aroma of bitter orange with rich milk chocolate and natural lime blossoms. The exotic flavors of this chocolate are enhanced by deliciously crunchy crisped rice. Cultivated in the area around the Mediterranean Sea, bitter oranges are known to promote a quiet sleep, and lime blossoms are traditionally used for their relaxing properties. Retail: 2.82-ounce bar, around $5.

Chocolove Vintage 2004:  A line of single origin, vintage chocolate bars, each made from different beans and having a unique flavor profile. The current 2004 vintage of Chocolatour boasts origins from Sao Tome (Bittersweet Bar with 70 percent cocoa content), Grenada(Semisweet Bar with 60 percent cocoa content) and Java (Milk Bar with 33 percent cocoa content). Eating a Chocolatour is an experience like tasting a bottle of fine wine. You can choose a specific terroir and vintage and if you taste carefully, you’ll be able to taste something of the country and the weather. Because Chocolatour is made from single origin cocoa beans and weather affects the quality of the cocoa bean from year to year, Chocolatour will be made exclusively from origins and vintages that have high quality cocoa beans. Consequently, Chocolatour is made in limited productions and some origins may be available only once in a few years. Retail: $3.40/single bar, $18.95/6 bars, $35.90/12 bars.

Recchiuti Confections Hot Chocolate:  Dark Chocolate Pistoles (mini round pellet-like disks) great for both styles of hot chocolate: European style made with hot water and a dollop of whipped cream or American style made with milk. 12 ounces sells for $20.

Sans Souci Confections Truffamels:  A cross between a truffle and a caramel. A luscious salt butter caramel dipped in milk or dark chocolate, and rolled in crushed roasted peanuts or toasted coconut.  Available in 12-piece box, $23 and 24-piece box, $36.

Bissinger's Spa Chocolates:  Bissinger's has been making fine chocolates for over 300 years.  Their new Spa Chocolates consist of a seven-piece collection of handcrafted chocolates made with healthier ingredients, including blueberries, nuts and apricots, all dipped in dark chocolate or sugar-free milk chocolate. Savor one piece a day, for a week’s worth of enjoyment and possible health benefits. Includes Sugar Free Walnut Bear Claws on Tuesdays and Dark Chocolate-Dipped Apricots on Sunday. Available in Week 1 or Week 2 varieties. One box of seven pieces sells for $15.95.

The Chocolate Shot:  Designed for mixing and dispensing an espresso-like European “shot” of drinking chocolate, a liquid dessert perfect for sipping and dipping. Shots, prepared on an espresso-like machine, can be served as a dessert or aperitif, mixed with coffee or alcoholic beverages or mixed with ice cream. A circulating liquid storage dispenser stirs and tempers the chocolate. Machine retails for around $595; a 6-liter case of liquid chocolate sells for $69.

SerendipiTea — A line of chocolate teas:

  • ChocolaTea– chocolate, black tea
  • Chocolate A-Peel– chocolate, orange, black tea
  • Slim Mint– chocolate, vanilla, rooibos, mint, black tea
  • Buccaneer– chocolate, coconut, vanilla, rooibos, black tea
  • Currantly Cordial– chocolate, black currant, black tea

Retail price for 1-ounce tin is $4.50; a 4-ounce box ranges from $10 to $12.

For more information about the New York Chocolate Show visit

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .