Crave Chocolate? Read This!

February 2, 2015

By Anna Varriano

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February is National Chocolate Month, boasting the second highest chocolate sales in any given month (March or April trump it depending on when Easter falls).

There’s a lot of talk (and controversy) about the health benefits of chocolate – especially dark chocolate. These health benefits include supporting cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure, promoting weight loss, and improving memory. These health benefits are attributed to substances known as flavanols found in raw cacao beans which may or may not end up in the chocolaty products many of us enjoy.

Cacao vs Cocao vs Chocolate

A common message is that 70% (or higher) dark chocolate is the best choice to reap the benefits associated with chocolate. While dark chocolate is typically a better choice than milk chocolate or white chocolate (the latter is not really chocolate as it usually doesn’t contain any cocoa ingredients), if you really want to reap the most powerful health benefits of chocolate, you need to understand the difference between cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.

cacao tree  WEBWhile cacao, cocoa, and chocolate all originate from the fruit of a tree called Theobroma cacao, how the fruit is processed makes a big difference in the health benefits of the final product.  Interestingly, the name of the tree is derived from the Greek work ‘theos’, which  means gods, and ‘broma’ which means food – and I’m guessing many of you reading this would agree that chocolate is indeed food for the gods!

I just read an article entitled “Why You Should Go Crazy for Cacao” (Alternatives, Volume 17,No 12, Dec 2014 by Dr. David Williams), that supports many other articles I’ve read on the topic of chocolate, and I thought I would share some of what I’ve read with you.

Cacao trees produce a pod that contains cacao beans.  The pods are picked and then split, allowing the beans to ferment naturally.  Inside the beans are small pieces called ‘nibs’ which contain cacao butter. These nibs are the starting point for future chocolate production and contain all of the natural fiber, fat, protein, minerals and nutrients of the cacao bean. You can buy cacao nibs at most health food stores. They have a slightly bitter taste and can be used in baking, or sprinkled on yogurt, fruit, or into a smoothie. I love them!

cacao nibs 1Cacao nibs can be processed to make raw cacao powder, which is often touted as a ‘superfood’. Raw cacao powder contains most of the flavanols of the cacao beans. Flavanols are strong antioxidants  that give chocolate, and other foods such as fruits and vegetables, their health-boosting reputation.  Studies show that eating more foods rich in flavanols is associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes.

Many of the health benefits of raw cacao seem to stem from the fact that a particular flavanol it contains promotes the production of nitric oxide, which in turn can boost immune function and improve circulation to all parts of the body – both very important factors in overall health.  Regular flavanol consumption has also been linked to improving memory, cognitive skills and insulin response, as well as lowering blood pressure.

Cacao powder and cocoa powder (which is what most people use) are not the same product. The processing of raw cacao powder into cocoa powder requires high temperature roasting which lowers the overall nutritional value and eliminates most of the health-boosting flavanols. In addition, sugars, milk fats, and oils are added to cocoa powder.

Chocolate production involves even more processing than cocoa powder production, so even more of the flavanols are eliminated. You’d have to eat a lot of dark chocolate to reap the same benefits delivered in a small amount of raw cacao nibs or raw cacao powder. Unfortunately, high percentages of cocao powder identified on many chocolate products (e.g. 70%, 80%, 90%) doesn’t always translate into a high level of flavanols.

What Chocolate Cravings May Be Trying to Tell You

greensThere seem to be an interesting connection between chocolate ‘addictions’ and a certain nutrient deficiency which is becoming very common and concerning – and that is magnesium. Cacao powder is a rich source of magnesium, so a constant craving for chocolate may be a sign that you need magnesium. Magnesium is known as the ‘anti-stress’ mineral, so it’s pretty ironic that many people binge on chocolate when they are feeling stressed. Magnesium is involved in hundreds of chemical reactions in all tissues of the body, and is critical for proper nerve and heart function. Additional good food sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, quinoa, and dark leafy vegetables, especially spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and turnip greens. Eat your greens!

Bottom Line?

When you’re craving something chocolaty, to get the most bang for the buck (and for your health), try adding some organic, raw cacao powder and/or nibs to your snacks and smoothies.   You can mix a tablespoon of cacao powder into plain yogurt, or a cup of warm (not hot) almond milk or coconut milk. You can also sprinkle some raw cacao or raw cacao nibs over fruit.  Note that if you’re sensitive to caffeine, you’ll want to avoid consuming cacao later in the day as it may interfere with your sleep.

Unfortunately, not all the news about cacao and chocolate is good news. In her book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, award-winning author and broadcaster Carol Off, exposes the unethical history of the cacao industry. Almost half of cacao comes from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Some farmers have resorted to abusive labour practices (including child labour and trafficking) in order to “compensate” for the labor intensive harvesting and preparation of cacao beans, as well as the extremely low price of the beans brought about by economic and government forces. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of fair-trade cacao, cocoa, and chocolate products available.

Finally, remember that health promoting antioxidants are found in numerous other food sources – especially fruits and vegetables – and that these sources should not be replaced by cacao powder, cacao nibs, or any form of chocolate! In nutrition, moderation and variety are key!

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