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Senior eating a chocolate bar

What if you found out you could spend an entire afternoon eating chocolate and not only not feel guilty about it, but feel great because of all the health benefits? That’s the sweet news that participants in the 3rd annual Downtown Chocolate Walk in Naperville are in for.

Benefitting Naperville’s 360 Youth Services, the February 10 Chocolate Walk offers attendees a commemorative souvenir tin in which to put all the tasty bites and surprises they receive from chocolatiers and other merchants on the map-guided walking tour.

Now for those benefits, beyond the sheer fun of a Valentine’s Saturday devoted to confections: chocolate, particularly the dark variety, treats a body well in just about every way.

Heart Health
According to a new study, eating up to 100 grams of chocolate per day is associated with lowered risks of heart disease and stroke. That’s about 22 Hershey’s Kisses, two Hershey bars or two bags of M&Ms! Antioxidants such as flavanols and polyphenols found in chocolate lower blood pressure to the heart and brain and also make platelets less sticky, reducing the risk of blood clots and stroke. Dark chocolate has also been found to improve “good” cholesterol, with one study finding that just one week of consuming dark chocolate improved lipid profiles.

Disease Prevention
Dark chocolate fights free radicals, especially the environmental toxins we’re exposed to every day. Antioxidants in cocoa neutralize unbalanced compounds and protect the body from their damage. Some research even suggests that the helpful plant compounds found in chocolate might also play a role in cancer prevention, and another study found that regularly eating chocolate increases insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk for diabetes.

Cognitive Function
Dr. Josh Axe, an expert in food as medicine, lists dark chocolate as one of 15 brain foods to improve focus and memory, especially in older adults. According to Axe and other researchers, the flavanol-rich cocoa in chocolate increases blood flow to cerebral gray matter, diminishing the risk of dementia and stroke. Brain benefits extend to hot chocolate as well, as drinking two cups of hot chocolate per day is linked with healthier brains and sharper thinking skills among seniors.

Mood, Skin and Cough Prevention
Chocolate is a source of tryptophan, an amino acid associated with serotonin, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness and emotional well-being. Despite conventional wisdom that chocolate is bad for your skin, the truth is that flavonoids in dark chocolate offer some protection from the sun’s damaging UV rays. And as for that pesky cough, an ingredient in chocolate calms the brain’s vegus nerve, which triggers continuous coughing.

Way back in 1900 B.C., when the Aztecs revered cacao seeds as a gift from the god of wisdom, they were likely unaware of its multiple health benefits. So too, probably, were the Cadbury, Mars and Hershey companies, who brought us the solid edible chocolate bars we love so much at the turn of the 20th century.

Today we know better, and to usher in the Valentine’s Day spirit, please enjoy this hot cocoa recipe from Monarch Landing’s pastry chef, Laurie Franger. It’ll do your heart good!

Creamy Slow Cooker Hot Cocoa

6 cups Whole Milk (1% or 2% works too)
2 cups Half & Half
1 (14oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
8 ounces Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
¼ cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
2 teaspoons Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1 Cinnamon Stick (optional)

  1. Place all ingredients in a slow cooker and whisk to incorporate the cocoa powder and cinnamon.
  2. Cook on low for 4 hours or on high for 2 hours, whisking every 45 minutes – 1 hour to make sure the chocolate chips aren’t sticking and burning on the bottom.
  3. Cocoa is ready to drink as soon as it’s hot and the chocolate is melted. Keep cocoa warm in a slow cooker on the warm or low setting.
  4. Enjoy with your favorite toppings: marshmallows, candy canes, caramel sauce, etc.