February marks “American Heart Month”, sponsored by the American Heart Association in order to raise awareness about heart disease and how people can prevent it — both at home and in the community. With February also comes Valentine’s Day, when Americans will purchase around 58 million pounds of chocolate during the days leading up to the 14th (a small fraction of the reported 3 billion pounds per year), and we shell out somewhere around $345 million to satisfy our Valentine’s sweet tooth.
The good news about chocolate is that some studies prove that dark chocolate—sweet, rich, and delicious—is good for more than curing a broken heart. It has even been dubbed a superfood. The secret behind its powerful punch is cacao, which provides chocolate with its distinct, bitter taste.
Read on to discover all that chocolate has to offer.
Chocolate, Cocoa… and Cacao
As it may seem that these three terms are interchangeable it is important to know the difference between them. Though they are all derived from the Theobroma Cacao tree, each one differs in both their nutritional value and processing steps.
- Cacao generally refers to the raw cacao bean. This means it is in its most pure form with minimal processing, if any. In this state, cacao provides you with the highest quality of nutritional benefits.
- Cocoa is the term used for cacao beans that have been roasted. In this form, there is minimal cocoa butter- the oil extracted from cacao bean. Nutritional benefits of cocoa vary depending on how long it has been roasted. Can you guess what type of cocoa is most healthful?
- Chocolate candy is typically the mixture of cocoa with sugar, vanilla, milk and cocoa butter. Eating chocolate in this form often means consuming extra fat and added sugar, so exercise moderation.
Now that you know these differences, let’s take a glance at the health benefits cacao gives us!
Cacao beans are very rich in the antioxidant – flavonoid. Flavanols are the main type of flavonoids found in cacao and have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Additionally, it helps supports heart health by lowering blood pressure, LDL cholesterol levels, and regulating blood sugar (not so much chocolate).
Theobromine not only refers to the cacao tree but also to the chemical found in cacao beans. This chemical is a mild, non-addictive stimulant that activates the brain to produce more anandamide. Anandamide is a neurotransmitter that gives us that euphoric feeling when we consume chocolate.
Lastly, cacao contains several beneficial vitamins such as magnesium, iron, and chromium. Magnesium works against acid build up and aids in calming nerves. Iron works together with the oxygen carrying protein hemoglobin, promoting healthy blood flow. Chromium aids in detoxifying our blood as well as our liver from alcohols.
Healthy Ways to Enjoy Chocolate
As you may have already guessed, you will obtain the most nutritional benefits from cacao when it is in its most pure & raw form or as close to this as possible. Try cacao nibs, which are fantastic sprinkled on a salad of mild greens, strawberries and goat cheese with balsamic vinaigrette. For a breakfast treat, put them on top of oatmeal along with nuts and raisins. The adventurous can make a green smoothie (use your favorite recipe) with cacao nibs and a pinch of cayenne. For a way to satisfy your sweet tooth, try these Sunbutter Cacao Nib Rice Krispie Treats. Another healthy option is unsweetened cacao powder. Here are a few delicious ways to add cacao powder to your diet.
If you are looking for a new chocolate brand to try, Joy & Taylor’s Raw Chocolate is hand made locally in Davis.
Let us know your favorite chocolate recipes in the comments below. We would love to hear from you!
By Janelle Manzano, Clinical Nutrition Student