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Dealing with family members who lack gratitude

Dear Annie: There are three sisters in my family. Two of us are childless. Our other sister now has seven grandchildren. Every Christmas and birthday, my other childless sister and I send a check to each grandniece and grandnephew. We never expect any gifts in return, but it would be nice to receive a text message or an email acknowledging our gifts. My other childless sister and I also receive regular solicitations to contribute to special funds -- for example, one to pay for band uniforms.

Upon any graduation from high school, my other childless sister and I are expected to attend the event and pay for our own airfare, a hotel room, a car rental and other expenses, which is fine. But then we are both expected to work in the kitchen to assist with an elaborate gathering for many people -- which I know is very expensive.

My other childless sister feels as if it would be unfair to the younger grandnieces and grandnephews to stop sending checks because we have sent so many checks to the older ones and they are ungrateful. I think that it is time to stop sending checks. Your opinion, please. -- Checked Out

Dear Checked Out: You don't owe anybody anything. Send the younger children greeting cards if you'd like to let them know you're thinking of them on special occasions, but don't include checks. If they get angry, as though they were entitled to your money just because their elder siblings received some, then they needed a lesson in humility more than they needed cash.

Dear Annie: I would like to use you as a sounding board, hoping that my children and old-enough grandchildren might read this and see themselves in the paper.

I have a problem that I'm sure other adults with grown children and grandchildren have when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I always make sure that the above-mentioned relatives have presents and cards on their special days. But when it comes to my husband's and my anniversary and birthdays, we get nothing from them.

Heaven forbid that I don't send at least a card their way for every occasion. If I don't send a card for my grandchild, for example, I get a nasty phone call from my daughter, who asks whether I forgot her son's birthday.

I am going to try to start doing the same, calling to ask whether they forgot my birthday or my husband's birthday. I guess I was brought up differently than I raised them. -- Upset in Florida

Dear Upset: So many people's manners seem to be going downhill in this department. Just take a look at the previous letter.

I certainly sympathize with you and all the other grandparents, aunts and uncles who consistently show thoughtfulness that younger relatives rarely reflect back. That said, have you tried telling your children you feel this way? They might be all grown up, but there are still lessons you can teach them -- such as how no one likes feeling taken for granted, not even parents. And if they don't take that lesson from you, I guarantee they'll learn it firsthand one day.

Darker, less-processed chocolate can be enjoyed sparingly

Dear Doctor: How should chocolate be processed to preserve its healthful properties? I've read that a non-alkalizing process is better than an alkalizing process, but I don't understand the difference.

Dear Reader: Ever since studies revealed that chocolate can convey health benefits, a certain segment of the population (hello, fellow chocolate lovers) has been doing a happy dance. Researchers have found that biologically active compounds in chocolate, known as flavonoids, can lower cholesterol, prevent memory decline and reduce the risk of developing heart disease. (Cocoa is also a good source of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.) But while the headlines simplified the findings to just plain "chocolate," the facts of the matter are a bit more complex.

Chocolate is the end product of a multistep process that begins with the colorful, podlike fruit of the cacao tree. Farmers harvest the cacao pods and separate the seeds from the fleshy (one reference we read used the word "mucilaginous") white pulp via a multiweek process of fermentation and drying. The seeds are then roasted and ground into chocolate liquor, a thick liquid comprised of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. From there, it's up to each manufacturer how this liquid will be manipulated, and how much sugar and other ingredients will be added to create the final product that we call chocolate.

Which brings us back to those flavonoids. They are a class of plant nutrient contained in most fruit and vegetables. Not only do they give our fresh food those bright colors, they're also powerful antioxidants that help boost the immune system and act as anti-inflammatories. One of the subgroups of flavonoids are flavanols, which are found in grapes, apples, berries, tea, red wine and -- here's why they're important to this discussion -- cocoa. And like many micronutrients, they can be damaged during cooking or processing.

Cocoa is naturally acidic, which can give the natural products a rough edge. Natural cocoa powder is basically a cocoa bean concentrate. It's light brown, slightly fruity and has a penetrating and bitter flavor. To take the edge off that bitterness, some manufacturers treat the cocoa with an alkalizing agent. Cocoa that has been alkalized is also known as Dutch-process.

This type of processing makes the cocoa powder darker, decreases the bitterness, and makes it smell and taste more "chocolatey." However, it does have a negative effect on flavanol levels. In some analyses, cocoa that had been alkalized had half of the amount of flavanols as did natural cocoa. So, if your chocolate intake is specifically for its health effects, then natural cocoas are the way to go.

Whether alkalized or not, pure cocoa is extremely bitter. To make it palatable, chocolate products are highly processed. In addition to fermenting, roasting and alkalization, all of which can reduce flavanol levels, cocoa is combined with sugar, fat and various milk products. The result are foods whose fat and sugar levels may outweigh whatever advantages the flavanols would confer.

Bottom line? Despite its purported health benefits, chocolate is not a food group. (Sorry, chocoholics.) Instead, think of it as a condiment. Go for the darker, less processed varieties, and just enjoy a square or two at a time.