The word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. Theobroma cacao, is the name of the tree where cacao beans are harvested. All chocolate comes from cacao beans which are the seeds of the Theobroma tree. The word cacao means “food of the gods.”
First domesticated by the Mayans over 2,000 years ago, cacao is one of the most nutritionally complex foods on earth, with over 300 compounds. Cacao has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 95,500 per 100 grams, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants.
When I am craving a mid-afternoon or after dinner treat, my go to is a piece of dark chocolate. A former milk chocolate fan, now I prefer dark chocolate for many reasons:
- A little goes a long way. Compared to milk chocolate, a small square of high quality dark chocolate is richer, and far more “chocolatty” and satisfying. So rather than eating a whole bar, a small square might just do.
- It has less sugar. The higher the percentage of cacao, the lower the sugar content. The less sugar we eat, the less hungry we are, the more energy we have, and the more likely we are to be a healthy weight. Giving up sugar for a short time (such as 2 weeks) can reduce or eliminate cravings for super sweet foods, and boost your body’s insulin sensitivity – sort of “resetting” your metabolism. Insulin resistance is a common problem where the body no longer can process glucose effectively. Sugars and carbs are all converted to glucose. Insulin resistance often goes undiagnosed as it may not have any symptoms, but can contribute to stubborn weight gain, and eventually lead to diabetes and heart disease.
- It is heart-healthy. Would you be surprised if you left the doctor’s office with a bar of dark chocolate instead of a prescription? It may not be such a far-fetched idea, a number of studies have shown chocolate to offer cardioprotective effects. A new study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that dark chocolate can offer some significant heart health benefits – even reducing heart attack risk by 37%, and stroke by 30%. The higher the % of cacao, the more health benefits, that is why dark chocolate has more health benefits than milk chocolate.
- It boosts mood. No, it is not your imagination that chocolate enhances your mood. Cacao is rich in theobromine, which is a mood enhancer that also boosts energy, stamina, and vitality. Chocolate consumption has been linked to improved athletic performance and endurance in a recent study on mice.
Cacao has a rich history of use as medicine, and because the health benefits were so revered, it was even used as currency. Cacao is rich in minerals and antioxidants including potassium, magnesium, iron, polyphenols, flavanols, theobromine, and proanthocyanidins. Cacao offers a long list of health benefits including reducing heart attack and stroke, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and brain function, protection against Alzheimers disease, lowering stress, relaxing muscles, boosting our skin’s internal SPF, and much more.
Switch to Dark Chocolate
Although eating milk chocolate will offer a small health benefit, the higher sugar content probably outweighs much of the benefits. Dark chocolate has significantly more nutrients, and less negatives (less sugar). People with a very strong sweet tooth will need time to adjust to dark chocolate, but it is possible to develop a taste, and even a preference for dark chocolate. First start by switching over to a better brand – Green & Blacks milk chocolate has 34% cacao, which is a higher cacao content than the average milk chocolate bar. Give a 60% cacao chocolate bar a try, it will be slightly more bitter than milk chocolate, but still will have a nice hint of sweetness. Once you have adjusted, then move on up to 70% cacao. Some people who like bitter tastes will even like 80% or higher cacao. Righteously Raw makes a number of delicious raw chocolate bars, their caramel dark raw chocolate bar has 90% raw cacao, and contains no refined sugar.
You can add cacao nibs to recipes for a chocolate nutty flavor, or you can even make dark chocolate at home, with just 5 ingredients – watch this video, or view the original recipe from Sunfood. Warning – once you make your own dark chocolate, it will be hard to buy it again!
Calorie Free Chocolate?
Not all chocolate contains calories – there are some calorie-free alternatives. This past Spring I was so excited to discover Tisano chocolate tea at Food Expo West in L.A. Made from the shells of the cacao beans, Tisano contains tannins, catechins, polyphenols, theobromine and other antioxidant agents. Tisano has a rich chocolate taste – and offers the mood-boosting benefits, but without the fat or calories of chocolate bars.
Sara Vance is a Clinical Nutritionist in the Encinitas, CA area.
*This content is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons experiencing problems or with questions about their health or medications, should consult their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before taking the above foods, herbs, vitamins or supplements to be sure there are no interactions.
©2011, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.