Oh chocolate. One of our favorite foods. When making the shift to healthy lifestyle, even when we cut out sugary treats chocolate is often the last thing to go. It touches a particular place in humans, soothing and exciting us in a way that few other foods can. But is that good or bad? Can chocolate be a part of a healthy lifestyle?
Know Your Chocolate
Understanding the different types of chocolate can help us make wise decisions about eating it. All chocolate comes from pods of the cacao tree, a bitter tropical plant. The seeds are then fermented, dried, and processed to make raw products like cacao powder and cacao butter, or cooked products like cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and cocoa liqueur. There are as many different types of chocolate as you could imagine, from waxy candy bars that are mostly sugar and milk powder to the straight bean itself.
* Milk Chocolate Bars
This is the most readily available form of chocolate, and the least nutritious. A small amount of cocoa liqueur and sometimes cocoa butter is combined with lots of milk, cane sugar, soy lecithin, and other ingredients to form a creamy candy bar. There is very little of the actual cacao left, and it has been processed until its nutritious qualities are pretty much nullified.
* Dark Chocolate Bars
Dark Chocolate bars are made in a fashion similar to milk chocolate, but tend to have a much higher cocoa content. Some still contain traces of milk, and some are vegan. In general the higher the cocoa percentage the bitterer and more nutritious the chocolate bar.
* Raw Cacao Treats
Items made with raw cacao powder, butter, and nibs are significantly higher in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients. To get the most benefits, the cacao powder must have been processed at low heat – many of the antioxidants are lost in the roasting process otherwise. Raw cacao treats still tend to be sweetened, though they are often made with alternative sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup, or xylitol, and will have a richer and bitterer taste than chocolate.
* Raw Cacao Powder and Nibs
This is the real deal, bitter and powerful. Raw cacao beans/seeds contain all the vital nutrients of the cacao. They are so intense and concentrated that just eating a few of them tends to give people the “chocolate fix” they crave, and without sugar or processing this is probably the healthiest way to enjoy chocolate/cacao.
Whatever type of chocolate or cacao you eat, it is important that it is organic and fair trade. Conventional cacao farming can be destructive to rain forests, and the farmers are not usually paid a fair wage for the amount of labor that goes into growing and processing cacao. Getting organic and fair trade chocolate ensures that the farmers and the earth were treated well in the process of growing your chocolate.
Why We Love Cacao
So much more than just a candy, cacao offers many health benefits. It is high in magnesium, vitamin C, fiber, chromium, vitamin E, the B vitamins, vitamin A, calcium, and zinc. It contains the antioxidants epichatehin, chatechin, resveratrol, and procyanidin, all of which are important for protecting the heart. The antioxidants in raw cacao have been shown to dissolved plaque in the arteries and help lower blood pressure. Raw cacao has nearly the highest known antioxidant content of any foods, far higher than green tea, red wine, grapes, and blueberries.
Most impressively, cacao contains amino acids and phytochemicals that contribute to the feelings of happiness and ecstasy – anandamide, serotonin, theobromine, phenylethylamine, and dopamine. It is not a myth that cacao, and to a lesser degree chocolate, makes us feel good. Eating it stimulates the brain in the same way that love and pleasurable activities do.
When Chocolate Is Not Your Friend
On the whole, raw cacao can be healthy for most people, in moderation. It is high in copper, so people with liver damage should avoid cacao and chocolate. It also contains some oxalic acid, which in some people may contribute to the formation of kidney stones. But there is far less oxalic acid in cacao than in spinach and some other vegetables, and you would have to eat massive amounts of cacao to experience ill effects from it.
Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine, so for most people it is better to eat it earlier in the day, or avoid it if you are very sensitive to caffeine. It is also mildly acidifying, so cacao is not advised if you are on a strict alkalinizing diet. But the biggest challenge with cacao is that it can inspire dependency. It can inspire such positive feelings in the brain that we want to eat more chocolate to keep those good feelings going. So as with most good things, practicing moderation with cacao is wise.
Chocolate has the potential to be good or bad for us, depending on how it is processed and our own constitutions. When combined with lots of milk and sugar, nothing is really healthy for us, so chocolate in that form is basically just candy. But in its raw, minimally processed, organic state, cacao can offer a wealth of health benefits if we enjoy it mindfully.