Like a close friend, chocolate is intimately woven into my life. It was present during tough family times, amidst lonely travels and prominent at festivities. Growing up in the age of ding-dongs, I scorned chocolate and received “special” treats at birthday parties. Exploring the world as a young adult, I found that pudding-like, Italian drinking chocolate far surpassed Belgian white chocolate confections. What is it about quality of chocolate repels or lures me?
Cacao, the key ingredient in chocolate, comes from the cacao bean – the seeds or nuts of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree – and includes cacao nibs, butter, paste (liquor) and powder.
As a functional food, high-quality dark chocolate promotes various positive operations in the body, from improving circulation and cognition to reducing intestinal inflammation. Flavonoids found in cacao promote healthy blood pressure, while anti-inflammatory polyphenols act as vasodilators to maintain proper cardiovascular function and improve blood flow to the brain. Cacao’s antioxidants help protect the nervous system, regulate insulin and keep us looking younger by protecting our skin from UV radiation when applied topically. Cacao affects cholesterol by lowering LDL, and is studied for its anti-cancer properties. Dark chocolate positively affects neurotransmitters to improve our mood and memory, and trace amounts of its caffeine compounds are energizing. Recent studies show that cacao diversifies the microbiome!
Raw cacao powder is derived from cold-pressed, unroasted beans, thereby preserving the therapeutic properties while removing the fat (butter). Ten percent of raw cacao’s weight accounts for antioxidants, and contains more polyphenols and antioxidant compounds than most teas and wines! It’s unusually high in minerals, especially magnesium, manganese, potassium, copper and iron.
As with most foods, cacao is often highly processed for stability and versatility. The “Dutch” cocoa powder used for baking lacks the beneficial compounds of “raw” cacao, because the natural components have been neutralized via a high-temperature roasting process; this is now “cocoa”, often ground into powder. By contrast, raw cacao powder is fermented before applying a slow, low-temperature roast just long enough to develop the flavor, while preserving the majority of nutrient content.
Chocolate bars and confections are typically made from cocoa paste, butter and added sugar (cutting the bitterness) to form bittersweet, semi-sweet, sweet or milk chocolate; in doing so, the purity of cacao is diminished, and so are the benefits. For example, bittersweet and semisweet contain 35% chocolate (from both solids and fat) plus sugar; milk chocolate contains less than 10% chocolate; and white chocolate contains only cocoa butter and, thus, is not truly chocolate. Additionally, research shows that dairy inhibits the antioxidant activity of cacao – milk proteins bind to nutrients, making them unavailable to the body.
Many conventional manufacturers utilize nutrient-poor cocoa powder and mask the strong flavors of chocolate with additives such as refined sugar. The result is a $75 billion chocolate industry with mostly sub-par “chocolate” that adversely affects our health. Dark, unsweetened chocolate, on the other hand, is closer to a whole food, rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and flavonoids.
With most scientific research about chocolate focused on isolated nutrients in raw cacao, note that touted health benefits of chocolate are found primarily in superior, single-origin, small-batch crafted cacao. Higher prices typically indicate more cacao.
When choosing chocolate, remember its therapeutic benefits. Consider the quality, type and amount of sugar, ideally choose non-dairy and raw, and aim for a higher percentage of dark chocolate from a “single origin”. While there is no standard for which percentage to choose, most health experts agree that 70% chocolate and higher will be nutrient-dense.
Today, my birthday, I’m celebrating wisely with dear friends and the raw dessert of my dreams: dark chocolate, salted peanut butter, coconut-cream-and-date pie.
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