Chocolate: Uplifting and Healthy Too!
Most of the time when we crave chocolate, we feel guilty, thinking that we shouldn’t indulge in that craving and that chocolate is bad for us. However, what many people might not know is that chocolate in it’s unprocessed form is full of nutrients that studies have shown can reduce the odds of having a stroke, benefit the cardiovascular system, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart disease. Additionally, there have been many studies indicating that chocolate has mood enhancing qualities that can positively counteract feelings of irritability, depression and anxiety.
So lets take a bit closer look at this decadent treat. Chocolate comes from the cacao bean which contains high concentrations of over 300 compounds, particularly magnesium. This mineral, which is also found abundantly in green plant foods, is one that many Americans are deficient in. It has an important role in brain health, keeping bones strong, proper muscle and nerve function, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Additionally, research has shown that low magnesium levels may contribute to depression and anxiety.
Cacoa also contains a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical that the body produces naturally when we are excited, alert and in a good mood. In addition, the neurotransmitter, anadamide, also referred to as the bliss chemical, has been found in high enough quantities in chocolate to positively impact the brain, reduce pain and elevate the mood.
Consumed in its raw form, cacao is a powerful antioxidant (higher than red wine) due to its flavonols, mood enhancer, pick-me up, appetite reducer and overall health-producing agent. Unfortunately, the opposite is true with processed commercial chocolate. When chocolate is heated at high temperatures, it loses a lot of its nutrients. Additionally, the added sugar, milk and chemical contamination can counteract its benefits and contribute to health conditions as opposed to alleviating them. To really benefit from chocolate, it’s important to pay attention to the added ingredients and to make sure that the chocolate is as close to its natural, organic, original state as possible.
Your next best bet when raw chocolate is not accessible is dark organic chocolate, preferably free trade to insure the highest processing standards. It’s also important to make sure that no artificial sweeteners or other ingredients have been added and that it’s lead free. A little goes a long way, and too much of anything is never a good thing, so keep your daily consumption to just a small square (6 or 7 grams) if possible. With raw cacao powder, you can beneficially consume up to 40 grams a day.
Raw cacao can be found in most health food stores and used in raw chocolate recipes and smoothies, many of which can be found online and in raw recipe books. Some stores even carry pre-made treats using raw cacao. Since chocolate directly from the plant is quite bitter, more than likely you are going to want to choose or make something with a bit of natural sweetener added. An ideal ratio to maintain all of the health benefits mentioned is 70-80% cacao or cocoa (sometimes used interchangeably in the US) and 20-30% sweetener. Some good natural sweeteners include agave nectar, raw honey, fresh dates, xylitol, mesquite and stevia.
-"The effects of nutrients on mood" by Benton D, Donohoe RT
Department of Psychology, University of Wales Swansea, Swansea, UK.
-David Wolfe, Raw Chocolate, author of Naked Chocolate
Kara wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.