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Hott Chocolate

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it is a good time to think about what to get that special someone. Though sometimes criticized as an unoriginal gift, chocolate has many benefits that make it an enduring Valentine's Day tradition.

Chocolate has long been associated with romance. From Montezuma, who supposedly drank as many as 50 cups of chocolate before visiting his harem, to Casanova, who would eat chocolate before making love to women, many have depended on the aphrodisiacal effects of chocolate.

According to Amy Reiley, author of "Fork Me, Spoon Me: the sensual cookbook," chocolate contains theobromine, which "causes the brain, in combination with some of chocolate's other chemical compounds, to release natural opiates."

These other chemicals, she added, "can conjure all the feelings associated with love."

Melanie Brede, registered dietician at the Center for Health Promotion at Student Health, said theobromine is "associated with the mood enhancement properties in chocolate."

Dr. Michael Liebowitz of the New York State Psychiatric Institute conducted research that suggested the phenylethylamine in chocolate releases a hormone also released during sexual intercourse.

Reiley said even though chocolate has these chemicals, "One would likely go into a diabetic coma before having eaten enough chocolate to experience measurable effects."

She explained that no studies have researched how much chocolate one would have to eat to feel its aphrodisiacal effects.

Despite this, chocolate can still help to put a loved one in the mood.

"It is really the power of persuasion," Reiley said. "We all associate chocolate with romance and therefore it does work very well."

To enjoy the arousing effects of chocolate, "We need to count on psychology," Reiley said. "And being creamy -- almost silky on the tongue -- with a heavenly scent, chocolate makes it pretty easy."

Reiley recommends oysters for the lover who does not like chocolate. A 2005 study by a team of American and Italian researchers found that eating oysters significantly raises levels of testosterone and estrogen, hormones involved in sexual arousal.

Besides being a tool for Valentine's Day seduction, chocolate has very few harmful effects when eaten in moderation. There are even some health benefits to eating chocolate.

According to Brede, chocolate contains flavanol, a chemical "associated with boosting good cholesterol and helping to inhibit lipid oxidation."

Brede explained that lipid oxidation is "part of the chain of events that lead to heart disease."

To obtain the full cardiovascular benefits of chocolate, Brede recommended chocolate with the highest cocoa percentage. This chocolate will have the highest levels of flavanol.

"Dark chocolate is higher in flavanol than milk chocolate," Brede said. "In milk chocolate, milk replaces some of the cocoa."

Chocolate with 70 percent cocoa is probably the optimal amount, Brede said.

Besides these benefits, chocolate does not cause acne, as some myths suggest.

"There is no research to prove that [any] food triggers acne," Brede said.

In the early 1970s, researchers at the University of Missouri gave subjects the equivalent of 230 grams of chocolate and then monitored the subjects every day for a week. They found there was no increase in acne in response to the chocolate, a finding replicated in other studies as well.

Although chocolate contains caffeine, the amount, about 30 milligrams in the average candy bar, is quite small when compared to the caffeine in coffee -- about 100 milligrams.

According to Brede, chocolate is also not an addictive food, though it is common for people to speak about having a "craving" for chocolate.

"If you are getting a chocolate craving, it is OK to have it." Brede said.

Overall, chocolate is a good choice for a Valentine's Day gift in terms of both its romantic association and health benefits.