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Skip candy this Valentine's Day. Here are some healthier options

Candy hearts are displayed on a shelf in Wilton Manors, Fla., in 2019. If you want to avoid processed, high-sugar candy, consider healthier alternatives for your loved one this year.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Candy hearts are displayed on a shelf in Wilton Manors, Fla., in 2019. If you want to avoid processed, high-sugar candy, consider healthier alternatives for your loved one this year.

Forget love — for many, the biggest part of Valentine's Day is all that candy.

Chocolate and other candy sales during the Valentine's Day season came out to an estimated $4.2 billion last year, according to the National Confectioners Association.

When the holiday rolls around, most of those sweet options you tend to find in the average grocery store are processed and contain ingredients such as food dyes, which some studies have linked to behavioral issues in kids.

So if you want some choices that offer sweetness and indulgence without the excessive sugar and empty calories, here are some alternatives.

Fresh fruit

It may seem boring, but fruits — fresh or dried — are a clear choice if you're looking for something naturally sweet while also beneficial for your health. Berries in particular are rich in antioxidants and vitamins. Strawberries, for example, have lots of vitamin C and can support your immune system so you're feeling your best for the holiday. What's more, apples have some effects in common with brushing your teethbecause they promote saliva production and freshen breath (obviously a must).

Fruit basket arrangements can be a good gifting choice.

Cheese board

Although it may not be the sweet option you're looking for, a cheese board can still be a romantic treat. While the benefits vary depending on what type you consume, cheese offers several nutritional benefits.

"Cheese has protein, vitamins, and minerals derived from the animal's milk. It's also quite salty and high in fat, so it falls in the category of enjoy in moderation," said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, in an email to NPR.

Stay away from the overly processed kind, which tends to be higher in sodium. You can tell by looking at the ingredients on the food label to see whether it's cut with non-cheese ingredients.

Chocolate-covered fruit or nuts

Giving chocolate is an age-old Valentine's Day tradition since at least when the Aztecs were around, as it was believed to be an aphrodisiac. So naturally, it had to make this list. But it comes with an asterisk.

While cocoa does have compounds that are good for us, we may not get enough of those benefits when consuming the highly processed, highly sweetened kind. Those heart-shaped boxes are a culprit.

"Dark chocolate has antioxidant nutrients, but you would have to eat pounds of it to take in enough to make a difference," said Nestle.

However, chocolate-dipped fruit or nuts is still a healthier alternative to chocolate alone. And dark chocolate with a high cocoa content would contain more antioxidants and less sugar than milk chocolate, for example.

Something homemade

Get creative and make something homemade, so you know exactly what's going into what you eat.

"You have no idea what's in pre-prepared food, whereas you know exactly what's in the food you cook," said Nestle. "Restaurant food is aimed at deliciousness, not necessarily health. Prepackaged foods have all kinds of additives — preservatives, colors, flavors, texturizers — to make the foods appear and taste good. These can encourage overeating."

Some ideas include homemade energy balls, granola bars, healthy oat cookies using wholesome ingredients, protein-rich nut-butter cups, whole wheat pancakes, naturally sweet date-coconut balls and yogurt-covered treats drizzled with honey. Just be mindful of portion size.

For a festive touch, arrange them in a heart shape and package in a decorative box.

Nonfood gifts

Something that isn't food can be just as thoughtful, without the extra calories. When in doubt, flowers are a classic. You can also give a potted plant — plantshave been shown to have a positive effect on mood. Other ideas include a book, a spa gift card or basket, a custom photo album or engraved jewelry.

Of course, objects can't compare with the gift of experience; some ideas are a concert, cooking class, wine tasting, movie night or weekend getaway.

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