Dark chocolate and raw cacao are packed with brain and body benefits, but only if you buy the right thing.
The cacao plant, or Theobroma cacao — “the food of the gods” — is as rich with nutrients as it is divine, with primary benefits deriving from its potent antioxidant compounds, particularly flavonols. Chocolate has been studied extensively and is known to reduce stress and contribute to stable blood sugar levels. Its flavonols can help improve blood flow to the brain, reduce blood pressure, prevent arteries from clogging and increase brain processing speed. The high magnesium (a mineral most of us are deficient in) content in chocolate promotes heart health, in addition to relaxation and healthy sleep. The healthful oleic acid in cacao beans can also help improve your good-to-bad cholesterol ratio.
When choosing chocolate for its health benefits, make sure to buy only dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa (at least 60 or 70 percent, but the higher, the better). Be on the lookout for preservatives, fillers, stabilizers and tons of sugar, as well as inferior brands that replace nutritious cocoa butter with less-expensive fats, such as soybean oil. Many widely available brands, even at fancy health-food stores, contain these unnecessary additives. All that bar of chocolate really needs is cocoa butter and sweetener, plus any featured real food ingredients like vanilla, nuts or sea salt. Be aware that milk chocolate, Dutch-processed chocolate and white chocolate do not carry the same health benefits.
To get the most nutritious form of chocolate available, you’ll need to buy unsweetened raw cacao from a health-food store or online. Raw cacao is a minimally processed form of cacao beans and is somewhat bitter. When cacao beans are roasted and sweetened, you get chocolate. The chocolate-making process pumps up the flavor and removes some (not all) of its nutritious compounds. Raw cacao nibs are ripe with antioxidants, and make a great addition to smoothies featuring bananas and nuts. Cacao powder can also be used instead of the less nutritious cocoa powder in almost any baking recipe because there’s usually some form of sweetener to balance it out.
In the commercial cocoa industry, you get what you pay for. Focus on quality over quantity when it comes to chocolate, and always look for responsibly harvested and produced chocolate with a Fair Trade Certified label. Some of my favorite chocolate products are Equal Exchange’s Panama Extra Dark Chocolate Bar; Alter Eco’s Salted Caramel Truffles; Anthony’s Goods Cocoa Nibs; and Navitas Organics’ Cacao Powder. All are organic — and incredible!
Adapted from The Power of Superfoods by Tabitha Grace.
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