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Over the last few years, scientists have published research touting the benefits of chocolate. In response to this trend, researchers at Harvard University, led by nutritionist and epidemiologist Eric Ding, PhD, analyzed 24 of the most comprehensive studies on cocoa (cocoa, which can be used interchangeably with the word “cacao,” refers to the powder derived from cacao beans; cocoa/cacao powder is the base of all chocolate).

Published in The Journal of Nutrition, the review focused on the effects of cocoa flavonoids — the powerful antioxidant compounds found in cacao beans — on the risk for cardiovascular disease. Cocoa was shown to lower blood pressure, decrease bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol. Cocoa flavonoids improve blood flow, which in turn may boost a person’s overall energy, cognitive performance and sexual function. The researchers also found that flavonoid-rich cocoa could help prevent or improve diabetes by improving insulin resistance.

Cocoa can benefit people of any age or gender, and it is effective for both healthy folks and those already at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, says Ding.

It’s important to note, though, that the study looked at natural cocoa flavonoids, which tend to be sparse in common commercial milk chocolate bars. Mass-market chocolate products also tend to contain high amounts of sugars and may also contain trans fats (both of which work against cardiovascular health and worsen diabetes).

When shopping for chocolate, choose the darkest variety you can find — the higher in cocoa the better — and look at the ingredients list to make sure cocoa beans, or a variation like cacao, cocoa mass or chocolate liquor, are the first ingredient. If you’re concerned about extra calories, sugar or saturated fat intake, experts advise sticking to around 1 ounce of dark chocolate per day.

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