Lots to Love about Dark Chocolate

brownieBefore I became aware of dark chocolate’s nutritious ways, I used to feel a tad guilty whenever I indulged, fearing that I was consuming empty calories (and a lot of them). But I haven’t felt that way in years and here’s why: Dark chocolate is chock-full of health benefits.

Let’s start with dark chocolate’s most noteworthy health perk: Its super-high concentration of antioxidants. We want to include antioxidants in our diets because they gobble up cell-damaging free radicals (present in all of us), which are unstable molecules that may contribute to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases that shorten lives. What’s more, the particular kinds of antioxidants found in chocolate — flavonoids and polyphenols — may boost heart health, by improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure and reducing bad cholesterol.

Another health perk to behold? Dark chocolate is surprisingly full of nutrients. A 1-ounce portion serves up 3 grams of fiber (as much as a banana!) and is rich in iron, copper and manganese. Current research shows that fiber may lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce the “inflammation” now attributed to cardiovascular disease. Iron, copper and manganese all play a role in energy production and overall good health.

Dark chocolate is a bona fide brain booster and mood elevator, as it triggers the release of endorphins and serotonin — neurotransmitters that make us feel up and good. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that participants over age 70 who reported regularly consuming chocolate scored higher on cognitive performance tests.

Fortunately — because dark chocolate runs high in fat and calories — only 1 ounce (about 150 calories; 10 grams of fat) is needed to achieve health benefits. On average, a few truffles or 3 squares of a 3.5-ounce bar are equal to about 1 ounce.  More sweet news: Chocolate, like nuts, induce satiety, so a little goes a long way in helping us feel fuller longer.

Not all chocolate is created equal, so choose your chocolate wisely. Most nutritionists recommend minimally processed dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content or higher to reap the aforementioned benefits. While milk and white chocolate are delicious, they have fewer antioxidants and nutrients, scant fiber and nearly twice as much sugar.

Double-Chocolate Black Bean Brownies

1 (15-ounce) can of black beans, rinsed and drained
3 eggs
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup unsweetened 100% cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup white sugar (or less, if prefer)
½ cup semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate morsels
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil or coat an 8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Combine the black beans, eggs, oil, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, vanilla extract, and sugar in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

Gently stir in chocolate morsels. Add ½ cup of chopped nuts if you like. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoons more of the chips you are using.

Bake 28 to 30 minutes, or until the edges start to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool at least 15 minutes before cutting and removing from the pan.

Helpful Tips

Store chocolate in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Ideally, it shouldn’t be stored in the refrigerator, as chocolate is a magnet for odors and more likely to discolor (or “bloom” with a whitish coating) from the fridge’s moisture. Bloom doesn’t affect flavor, but it does affect how appealing chocolate looks. If refrigeration is a must, however, first wrap your chocolate tightly, then seal it in an airtight container. When stored properly, solid dark chocolate keeps for two years; filled chocolates, such as truffles, keep for three to four months, sometimes longer.

Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at avpalumbo@aol.com.