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DIET DETECTIVE

Nutrition advice: An occasional dark hot chocolate, apple cider offer some health benefits

Monday, February 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

Water, seltzer and unsweetened iced tea are always the best drink choices; but if you want the occasional “calorie-laden” drink/dessert that also has some health benefits, these two may do the trick.

Dark hot chocolate

The why: Chocolate contains a number of chemicals that affect brain activity. One is tryptophan, the building block of serotonin, which is a relaxation-inducing neurotransmitter that, in large doses (chocolate has small amounts), causes elated or ecstatic feelings. Chocolate also contains anandamide, a substance that stimulates the same brain cell receptors as THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana that induces feelings of euphoria, and phenylethylamine, a brain chemical known to promote feelings of attraction, excitement and giddiness.

Health perks: One of the key benefits of chocolate is antioxidants, chemicals that slow down the aging process and help to prevent heart disease and certain kinds of cancer by blocking the cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidation.

Of particular interest is the subclass of antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been proved to keep blood healthy and prevent cell damage and inflammation. A diet supplemented with these antioxidants can slow oxidation of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase the level of HDL (“good” cholesterol).

In addition, studies show that people who enjoy moderate amounts of dark chocolate — about half a bar per week — have significantly lower blood levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of inflammation. Chocolate also contains stearic acid, a saturated vegetable fat that, when ingested, acts like the monounsaturated fats found in olives and canola oil. Unlike the saturated fat in butter, which may raise cholesterol, monounsaturated fat has a neutral effect, or may even help lower blood cholesterol. So, chocolate raises good cholesterol, lowers bad cholesterol, and its polyphenols can also prevent the DNA damage that may lead to tumor formation.

The downside is that the calories in chocolate can add up, and you can get many of the same benefits from drinking green tea. Another problem is that there aren't any really good ways to tell from the package whether the chocolate you are buying has been tested for its flavonoid content. Look for dark chocolate with a high cocoa content — at least 60-70 percent — because that's where the flavonoids occur.

But cocoa is also quite bitter. It's the added sugar and fat (including milk and cream) that give chocolate its sweet taste. And keep in mind that, if the sources of the cocoa, chocolate liquor or chocolate are modified by the words “alkalized” or “Dutch” or “Dutch processed,” it is unlikely to have a significant level of flavonoids. (Milk chocolate uses this process, and benefits are limited).

Other things that affect flavonoid content are bean selection, fermentation time and formulation techniques, none of which are indicated anywhere on the package.

Use about 1 ounce of 60 percent cocoa chocolate shavings mixed with skim milk, Splenda, stevia or sugar and vanilla extract to make a cup of hot chocolate. I don't recommend having it on a daily basis, but once in a while is not so bad.

Nutrition: One cup: 208 calories; 15 g fat; 18.5 g carbs; 2 g fiber; 4 g protein

Apple cider

The why: It's pretty tasty, and there are many important health components in apple cider, especially bioactive, functional food components, including vitamins (mostly C) and phenolics.

Health perks: In several studies, apple consumption has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and asthma. Apples are loaded with flavonoids, such as quercetin, which is important for keeping blood vessels healthy, reducing inflammation throughout the body, preventing DNA damage that can lead to cancer, and slowing cancer cell growth. One study, from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, stated that apples may reduce the risk for lung and colon cancer.

In terms of cardiovascular health, properties in apples decrease lipid oxidation, which helps to delay the breakdown of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. When LDL oxidizes in the blood, plaque accumulates along the walls of the coronary artery and causes atherosclerosis. Research also suggests that apples could help fight Alzheimer's disease.

According to scientists at Cornell University, the antioxidant concentration in apples is among the highest of all fruits and similar to that of store-purchased blueberries (wild blueberries are the highest), which are often touted as having the highest antioxidant activity.

Apple cider is made from the liquid of the apple. Therefore, some important functional components that stay within the skins and flesh may not be in the cider. So, it's still better to eat an apple than to drink a cup of cider. Typically, commercially prepared cider is just juice. To get the most from your apple cider, make sure to get real apple cider, which is cloudy because it's not filtered.

Nutrition: One cup: 120 calories; 0 g fat; 30 g carbs; 0 g fiber; 0 g protein.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of www.DietDetective.com.