Anyone who knows me knows that I am a chocoholic. I love it. All kinds and all combos (but usually it is mint chocolate that has my heart). My love for chocolate first took root in the processed world, where convenience store chocolate bars caught my fancy. As I learned more about nutrition, however, I developed an appreciation for foods in their whole form. I looked through the packaging and marketing to see the ingredient list and discover all the extra additives that are in the standard chocolate bars. I also learned that chocolate in its whole form, cacao is incredibly healthy, nutrient rich and loaded with antioxidants!
Chocolate is made from cacao, which is native to tropical areas, such as Central and South America. The Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao) produces cacao pods and inside the pods are cacao beans. The beans can be broken down into nibs, powder and butter. Cacao is very, very bitter – it’s essentially 100% chocolate (think of the bitterness 70% chocolate). The difference between cacao and cocoa is that cacao is raw and has not been roasted, whereas cocoa has been heated and processed. As cacao is raw, it can offer more nutrition since some nutrients and enzymes are degraded or destroyed by heat. And the difference between cacao and dark chocolate is that cacao is less processed. So yes, dark chocolate is good for our health, but raw cacao (such as cacao nibs) is even better! Cacao contains over 300 compounds including: protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, iron, zinc, copper, calcium, magnesium and B vitamins.
So here comes the concern of most chocolate bars: they add so much sugar to reduce the bitterness and increases the sweetness. Plus, you’ll usually find other binders, such as soy lecithin, milk products (if milk chocolate) and more. Quality is definitely something to consider with chocolate bars, including the quality of the ingredients besides cacao such as the sugar or sweetener added. For example, is it high fructose corn syrup or raw cane sugar that is added? You can also consider issues beyond nutrition, such as whether the chocolate is the product of “fair trade”.
Good quality chocolate, such as cacao products or dark chocolate bars, can promote balance through boosting mood, reducing stress, promoting relaxation and generally making us feel good! I’ve read that an ounce of good quality dark chocolate a day is quite health promoting… so I usually stick to that guideline ;)
Here are some of the ways you can find balance with chocolate:
- Cacao releases “feel good” endorphins which can give you a similar mood boost to the one that you would get some going for a run.
- Cacao has very, very high levels of antioxidants, such as flavonoids, which can help to prevent oxidative damage that can occur through toxins and stress.
- It contains a compound called phenylethylamine (PEA), aka the “love molecule”, which promotes a happy, elevated feeling and alleviates stress and depression.
- Cacao contains a neurotransmitter called anandamide that can boost dopamine levels in the brain, causing a sense of peace and relaxation.
- Cacao is considered a high source of magnesium, which is the mineral that promotes relaxation through reducing muscle-tension and calming nerves.
See, chocolate really is a health food!!
Ways to Eat Raw Cacao in your Diet:
Yes, chocolate may be a health food, but it’s all about quality. Incorporating raw cacao into your diet is really fun (and delicious). Here are some of the ways I like to enjoy raw cacao:
- Smoothies. This is my go-to. I love chocolate smoothies. It’s as simple as blending a frozen banana, 2 tablespoons of cacao, a handful of cacao nibs, ¼ avocado, tablespoon of almond butter, cinnamon and almond milk. You can also further boost the nutritional value by adding a few Brazil nuts and a tablespoon or coconut oil or coconut butter. You can also create a mint chocolate flavour by adding in a few drops of peppermint oil. Check out our chocolate smoothie recipe here.
- Hot cacao. In the winter time, this is my all-time fav! And it’s so incredibly simple. Just gently steam or heat almond milk (never boil), mix in about a tablespoon or two of cacao and a small spoonful of honey. When I’m craving some heat, I add in some cayenne.
- Energy balls. Energy balls make the best on-the-go snack. I like to add cacao nibs into my energy balls and sometimes even add in a scoop of cacao powder! Check out our recipe here.
- Homemade chocolate. As I said, I love chocolate. So, it’s only natural that I have attended a few chocolate workshops over the years to learn how to make my own chocolate. It’s pretty simple… and a little messy. Here’s the recipe from a chocolate class we took at the I Love Health Store. It’s really fun to make a batch and have it on hand when you have some chocolate cravings, but of course you don’t want to overly indulge.
- Chocolate mousse. Again, such a yummy and simple way to satisfy your sweet tooth, while getting a health kick! For this, all you really need is a food processor. I have used a few different recipes, such as from Oh She Glows, and most of them require a base of avocado, cacao, and maple syrup. Some variations will add almond butter, coconut butter, cinnamon and other goodies.
- Local handmade chocolate. Vancouver is quite fortunate to have so many health conscious entrepreneurs who are quite skilled at making chocolate using top quality ingredients. Some of my favs are Julie Beyer’s chocolate, Living Lotus, Indigo Café, Juice Truck and Melu Juice.
Happy chocolate adventures!