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A chocolate lover’s dream

“Today” food editor, Phil Lempert, helps sort out the good from the very good.
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Chocolate. 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. “Today” food editor, Phil Lempert, helps sort out the good from the very good when it comes to chocolate.

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 now the New York Chocolate Show (now in it’s sixth year) helps show us devotees everything we need to know and how to be sure we are getting the best chocolate we can.

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, of 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, which 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 minimizes 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 it helps 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 is it 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 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 also 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 neurot ransmitter normally found 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 affect 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 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. Remember, not all chocolate is made with cocoa butter, so be sure to read labels. For those monitoring fat intake, dark chocolate has less fat than milk chocolate.

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.

So, what are we saying, chocolate is a health food? At this point, there are still more studies to be done before we know for sure that different forms of chocolate are good for us, what kind of a long term impact eating certain amounts of chocolate can have on us, and whether all people are affected by chocolate in the same way. And with as much fat and sugar as there is in a typical chocolate bar, there is no way chocolate could be considered a health food.

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 we get a little taste of some of the best:

Valrhona presents the new vintages of its estate grown chocolates in a wooden case. Each of the six tasting chocolate bars includes the aromatic expression and the wealth of the soil of its estate of origin. An illustrated travel booklet details the different cocoa plantations in Trinidad, Venezuela and Madagascar used to create the bars.

E. Guittard Vintage Collection offers two premier chocolates to consumers. The 64 percent dark L’Harmonie, made from criollo and trinitario beans, is excellent for chocolate mousse, truffles and cold desserts. Soleil d’or, a 38 percent milk chocolate, is a versatile blend that can be used in crème brulée, ganache or as dipping chocolate.

Knipschildt Chocolatier — New products include Chocolate Dipped Pear Slices and Corn Flake Clusters in Dark, Milk and White Chocolate. Knipschildt’s hot chocolate and coffee sticks; Pyramid shaped chocolates on a bamboo stick come in three flavors: Mocha, Chai and Butterscotch.

Chocolat Moderne — Silky truffles, crunchy pralines and soft caramel are all made with the finest French extra bitter chocolate and exotic ingredients. Molded and decorated by hand using airbrushing and stencils, signature flavors include Mon Petit Kumquat, Pumpkin Pique-Nique and La Dolce Grapefruit.

The Art of Chocolate — Celebrated pastry chef Patrick Coston’s signature line of handmade artisanal chocolates, where each piece is a culinary canvas, hand molded in a unique shape. Patrick creates fillings with clean, focused flavors and subtle highlights and pairs them with the ideal chocolate. The outcome is a beautiful chocolate with an equally impressive taste and flavor.

Chocmod USA, the largest supplier of truffles in Europe, will offer the American palate Truffettes de France. These delicate French truffles rolled in cocoa powder come in assorted flavors, such as Fine Champagne and Grand Marnier.

Belgravia Imports is the exclusive U.S. importer of the luxury organic chocolate Green & Black’s. Made from only the purest organic ingredients and the highest percentage of cocoa content, Green & Black’s delivers a bold chocolate taste. Green & Black’s cocoa beans are certified, organically shade grown under the canopy of indigenous rainforest trees in the Dominican Republic and Belize in harmony with nature. NEW Chocolate bar flavors: Caramel (milk chocolate with a soft caramel center), Almond (milk chocolate with whole almonds) and Mint (dark chocolate with a soft mint center)

Ethel M Chocolates was founded in 1981 by America’s foremost chocolate entrepreneur, Forrest Mars Sr., to honor his mother Ethel. NEW: The essence of their signature chocolate pieces has now been combined with one of America’s favorite treats, fresh popped popcorn. Indulge in flavors such as Almond Butter Krisps, Pecan Brittle, and Lemon Satin Crème.

Artist Rita Jackson from Rabbitville Road in Indiana has been sculpting in clay for over thirty years. Her whimsical creations are the result of a unique artistic style of slab construction and a delicious imagination. She brings her new collection of chocolate-covered rabbits, “pupcakes” (Chocolate Lab in a chocolate cup) and chocolate-decorated gingerbread houses this year. (These are not edible).

Neuchatel offers superb gourmet Swiss chocolate confections including their addictive milk chocolate covered potato chips.

SweetBliss NEW: Black and White Moos- handmade marshmallow, caramel and graham cracker, enrobed in dark chocolate with white chocolate drizzle.

Kopper’s Chocolates — the inventors of the chocolate covered espresso bean and chocolate covered gummy bear have introduced (NEW) Kopper’s Savoury Collection, real spice and herb infused savory chocolate. Flavors include Cayenne Pepper, Tea Leaves, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and Curry.

For contact information for these products or more information about the New York Chocolate Show, visit Phil’s website at