Did you ever dream you could eat chocolate every single day?
I’m here to tell you to do just that! Great news: chocolate, the ultimate way to show your love for others and yourself this Valentine’s Day, is actually healthy for you.
The Aztecs valued chocolate and used the cacao seeds as a source of currency. They prepared a bitter, non-sugar laden chocolate beverage with spices and, and wine or corn purée, believing that it was an aphrodisiac and would impart strength in the privileged who drank it.
Turns out that the Aztecs weren’t far off. Go ahead—love your body by peeling back a wrapper and indulging in a small one-ounce square of dark chocolate each day.
You Say Cocoa, I Say Cacao: The Difference Between The Two
When most think of chocolate, they think of cocoa. However, chocolate comes in different forms, and it all boils down to heat.
Cacao is chocolate in its raw state. It undergoes little processing and is most pure and nutritious. Theobroma cacao (a Latin word meaning cocoa, food of the gods) is the cacao fruit tree native to Mesoamerica. It grows in the tropics such as West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America.
The cacao fruit tree produces cacao pods inside of which are cacao beans.
These beans are used to produce cacao butter (the part of the cacao bean that is white and has the highest fat content), cacao nibs (chopped up cacao beans), cacao paste (solid bars formed by melting cacao nibs at low temperatures to protect the nutrients and flavor), and cacao powder (formed by milling the cacao bean after the cacao butter is removed).
Cocoa is chocolate that has been processed in a similar manner as cacao, but under high heat. Cocoa is more predominant in chocolate bars and powders.
Yes, chocolate is good for you—dark chocolate, that is! It’s full of antioxidants, such as polyphenols, flavanols (these are what make chocolate bitter), and catechins. In fact, it’s among the world’s highest antioxidant- and magnesium-rich foods.
Since cacao is less processed, it contains higher concentrations of nutrients, but cocoa will still offer health benefits.
Be sure to read labels so the chocolate you choose doesn’t have added sugars, oils, or milk fats.
Sugar was not added to chocolate until the 16th century when the Spaniards spread the chocolate drink throughout Europe, at which time it was used medicinally as a tonic and remedy.
The cacao bean contains fiber, protein, healthy monounsaturated fats, and vitamins and minerals such as B-vitamins, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, chromium, and manganese.
It also contains phenethylamine (PEA)—a compound used to promote focus and alertness, theobromine—a natural antibacterial and cardiovascular system dilator, tryptophan—an essential amino acid used to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin (which is also a hormone) to combat stress, and serotonin—a stress-defending neurotransmitter.
How’s that for a daily “vitamin” that also rebalances your brain chemistry to counter stress?
Studies indicate that dark chocolate increases HDL and lowers LDL cholesterol and may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Other research supports that cocoa my improve brain function by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Selecting Your Chocolate Goodies
Not all chocolate is good for you! Here’s what you should choose:
- Minimally processed, closer to its raw state—70% cocoa/cacao or higher
- Dark—the darker, the better!
- Low sugar—sweetened with stevia, or low-glycemic coconut or palm sugar
That being said, here’s what you should avoid:
- Refined sugars, including fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, agave, and fruit juice concentrate, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame
- Genetically modified (GMO)
- Added milk fats
- Added vegetable oils such as soybean, sunflower, and corn oils
How To Ensure Freshness
Chocolate’s only super tasty (and healthy!) when it’s fresh. Here’s how to ensure it stays delectably fresh:
Room temperature chocolate releases the most aromas and flavors, melting right when it enters your mouth. Keep chocolate tightly wrapped in a cool (not refrigerated), dry environment away from foods with strong odors.
Shiny chocolate indicates freshness. Avoid dull chocolate with a fat bloom—a white or gray film—on its surface and/or a sugar bloom—crystallized sugar causing a grainy texture due to temperature extremes.
Chocolate is best when consumed within one year of its production. The flavanols act as natural preservatives. With the exception of some chocolates that improve with age (like wine), the closer you eat chocolate to the date of production, the better it will taste.
Take a small bite! Chocolate should not taste like strongly scented foods such as onions, garlic, or spices in your cabinet. One bite is sufficient to alert you if the chocolate is rancid.
Chocolate has a rich history and, in moderation, is a healthy addition to your daily food consumption. It not only offers a powerhouse of nutrients, but also helps reduce stress and cardiovascular disease, and encourages brain health. Chocolate comes in many forms, so choose wisely. And remember, the most nourishing chocolate is that which is darker. Go for healthy exotic chocolate this Valentine’s Day, and nourish your body, mind, and spirit!
Are you a healthy chocolate connoisseur? What characteristics do you look for when unwrapping chocolate? Share in the comments below!
Christine Cherpak is a health coach and yoga teacher who nourishes the human spirit and celebrates the rhythms of life. Freeing herself of food allergy restraints and claiming her true self, Christine empowers others to achieve a balanced state while learning to live, play, and love food again. Learn more about Christine by visiting Kalena Spire and Pinterest.
Photo by premier-photo.com