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Cocoa. Just the word conjures up steaming, frothy mugs of hot chocolate on a brisk day, or a delicate dusting of chocolate powder on a delightful dessert. Mmm. Besides satiating the pleasure centers of the brain, not to mention tickling the taste buds, cocoa offers physiological benefits.

The powerful but small cacao bean, from which cocoa is derived, contains compounds called flavanols. Flavanols are found in other beneficial foods, such as tea and red wines; however, cocoa contains more flavanols per serving than either.

What are flavanols? Flavanols are a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants are molecules that can safely interact with or even “tame” free radicals, which are thought to create oxidative stress and even damage or mutate an organism’s cells.

Benefits of cocoa. Foods like cocoa that are rich in flavanols help prevent and repair such damage. The cardiovascular benefits include a decrease in blood pressure owing to reduced inflammation of the arteries. Since cocoa is plant-based (cacao beans are tree nuts), it adds no cholesterol to the body. Cocoa’s antioxidants boost “good” cholesterol (HDL). HDL helps the body metabolize fats in the bloodstream, lowering LDL and preventing heart attack and stroke.

Portions.Cocoa can offer many benefits and in powder form has less fat and less sugar than sweetened regular or dark chocolate. Keep in mind that raw cocoa powder is bitter and can be sweetened with sugar or a nonsugar substitute. One tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa has approximately 10–12 calories, 1 gram (g) of total fat, 2 g of dietary fiber and 1 g of protein, making it a great way to add chocolate to your healthy diet. Try it in this month’s Recipe for Health “Midnight Chocolate Cake With Fudge Icing.”

—Susan Wuesthoff

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