FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Is it too much to ask for a yummy dessert that is equally good for the body?

The answer is NO! It is not too much to ask for!

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is a popular ingredient in desserts and contains properties that can improve your heart health.

Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with desserts. Desserts taste mouth-wateringly delicious but have a bad reputation of being unhealthy.

Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, just like tea, wine and cranberries. Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant that help protect and repair damaged cells inside the body. Research has shown that flavonoids can help lower 'bad' cholesterol, also known as 'LDL,' or Low-Density Lipoproteins.

The main flavonoid found in chocolate, flavanol, has been shown to help lower blood pressure, prevent blood clots, and even improve blood flow to the heart and brain. Research at San Diego State University recently demonstrated that dark chocolate may even help lower blood sugar levels.

Unfortunately, not all chocolates are created equally. Research has show that neither white nor milk chocolate offer the same benefits as dark chocolate. Some studies have even shown that white and milk chocolate may cause more cellular damage than protection.

Commercial chocolates sold inexpensively at convenience and grocery stores and are usually highly processed and contain extra ingredients that are not heart healthy. In order to reduce chocolate's natural bitter taste, many commercial chocolates and cocoa powders undergo a process known as "dutch processing," which has the unfortunate effect of destroying many of the naturally-occurring flavonoids.

Extra ingredients or fillings, like caramel and marshmallow, provide additional sugar and calories that can also increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

When choosing a chocolate, look for a product that contains at least 70% cocoa and was not processed through dutched processing. Generally speaking, the darker the chocolate (or greater the cocoa percentage) the more heart healthy properties are present.

There are currently no specific recommendations for serving size or serving frequency to get the full heart healthy benefits from dark chocolate. Several studies focus on one-and-a-half to three ounces of dark chocolate (typically one to two squares of chocolate) a few times a week. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that chocolate be consumed in moderation.

While dark chocolate has been shown to have heart healthy properties, it still contains high amounts of calories, and excess calories can lead to overweight-related diseases.

The most important message is to indulge in moderation. A few bites of dark chocolate throughout the week can be a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth and improve your heart health.

(Editor's Note: CPT Allison Sweet is a registered dietician and Chief of Nutrition Education
at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital.)