... the right kind of course.
The so-called “naughty” treat of chocolate, we all love to consume may not be so bad after all! Read on for the forms of chocolate to look out for and the health benefits they bring.
Delicious and nourishing choc chia pudding // Nutrition Republic
Photo credit: @bekcasey on instagram
Where chocolate comes from:
Chocolate is made from one primary ingredient, the humble Cacao bean.
Theobroma Cacao is an evergreen tree, native to tropical regions of America, that produces cacao fruit, also known as pods. Within these pods lays a bunch of health giving cacao beans, or botanically referred to as nuts. These cacao beans are individually surrounded by fruit pulp and it is within this cacao gem that lays various nutrients that can replenish stores of minerals, vitamins, neurotransmitters and antioxidants in our body.
Nutritional benefits of cacao:
Flavanols that contain antioxidants, including polyphenols, catechins and epicatechins. Cacao is an extremely antioxidant rich food source, more so than green tea, blueberries and red wine.
Nourishing minerals, including magnesium, iron, chromium, manganese, zinc, copper. The reason why premenstrual women commonly crave chocolate is due to the cacao bean being rich in magnesium, helping to help relax muscles and improve mood.
Essential omega 6 fatty acids, as opposed to the detrimental trans fats found in cooked, processed conventional chocolate. Omega 3’s fatty acids however are required in the diet to balance omega 6 content of cacao.
Vitamins including vitamin C. Cacao is one of highest vitamin C containing foods and the most potent vitamin C containing nut.
Feel good neurotransmitters:
Phenylethylamine (PEA). Cacao contains high levels of the PEA class of chemicals that we produce when we fall in love, thus the LOVE many have for chocolate. PEA is a precursor to noradrenaline and therefore adrenaline (to give us energy) and dopamine (the pleasure centre) in our body, helping us to de-stress from our hectic lives. PEA’s are destroyed once cooked, so they are only found in raw cacao products
Anandamide. This is an endorphin produced naturally after exercise. Cacao is the only plant that contains this. It is known as the “bliss chemical”. Cacao also contains enzymes that prevent the breakdown of anandamide, therefore allowing it to act in the body for longer.
Tryptophan & serotonin. Tryptophan is the amino acid that is used (together with B3, B6 and Mg) to produce serotonin- our primary neurotransmitter responsible for enhancing our mood. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so can help with anxiety and reduce physical and nervous stress.
Theobromine. This works in the body to dilate the capillaries (our small blood vessels). Foods consumed with raw cacao are therefore absorbed much more quickly into the system, hence why sugar shouldn’t be consumed with cacao! Theobromine also improves mood, acting in a similar way to serotonin in the body.
Fibre: This assists digestion as discussed below.
The health benefits of the cacao bean:
Cellular health: Cacao has anti-ageing properties due to its powerful free radical protection from antioxidants. Free radicals are related to many age related health conditions.
Cardiovascular: The polyphenol rich cacao can help to prevent heart disease. Epidemiologic studies have shown inverse associations between dietary polyphenols and mortality from coronary heart disease.[i] This includes an increase in good HDL and decrease harmful LDL cholesterol levels.[ii]
Cacao may also lower blood pressure with hypertension.[iii] The Theobromine content helps to relax smooth muscle in blood vessels. The high magnesium can also help support the heart.
Cacao may inhibit abnormal blood clotting, and the high content of vitamin C, iron, manganese and copper contribute to cacao’s blood building effects.
Musculoskeletal: Cacao contributes to strengthening bones and teeth due to the mineral content. It can also help to tone and relax muscles as a result of the magnesium rich cacao bean. Cacao may help to prevent tooth decay. [iv]
Digestive: Due to the polyphenol content of cacao, it may prevent diarrhoea.[v] Raw cacao also improves elimination due to its fibre content. It helps to cleanse the intestines and bulks up bowel movements. The magnesium content also contributes to strengthening the peristalsis movement of the colon muscles.
Nervous system: Cacao is mood enhancing due to its high content of the inhibitory neurotransmitter Serotonin, essential amino acid tryptophan, theobromine, phenylthylamine and the “bliss chemical” anandamide. These constituents in cacao contribute to natural antidepressant and anxiety reducing effects, as well as helping to lift energy and libido. The phenylethylamine in cacao contributes to increasing focus and alertness.
Skin: Cacao may increase the thickness of the skin, decrease water loss, improve blood circulation and decrease roughness and scaling of the skin.[vi] Cacao may help to prevent sunburn through its antioxidant properties[vii] and promotes healthy hair, skin and nails, due to its mineral content.
Metabolism: Cacao helps to support metabolism and therefore may promote weight loss. The high mineral content prevents further sweet cravings. Chromium and flavanoids within cacao helps to balance blood sugar levels and therefore prevent insulin resistance, which is the major driver of Type II Diabetes.
“There’s evidence that consumption of dark chocolate can improve your Glucose metabolism (diabetic control), Blood pressure and Cardiovascular system. Dark chocolate contains a relatively high concentration of flavonols, and researchers believe that the regulation of nitric oxide production by the flavonols found in dark chocolate could explain its positive effects on insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.” Dr Joseph Mercola.
Immune system: Cacao supports the immune system through its nutrient content, in particular vitamin C, zinc and copper.
Addictions: Cacao is effective for people to wean themselves off coffee, as the cacao contains some caffeine and is a stimulant due to the theobromine content.
When cacao is not such a healthy option:
Even though the caffeine content of cacao is very low, the Theobromine found in cacao is a stimulant. Those who are adrenally exhausted/ stressed, should be careful not to consume high quantities of cacao.
Those who experience any heart palpitations, racing heart or anxiety when consuming cacao, should minimise or stop their consumption of cacao through the diet.
Cacao can be addictive due to its caffeine and theobromine content.
Cacao may trigger migraines due to it containing amines.
Using cacao products:
Although cacao has many health promoting factors, after being processed, refined and combined with sugar, dairy, soy and other additives to make chocolate and chocolate products, this once healthy super-food becomes health damaging.
To get the true benefits of the cacao bean, unrefined, cold-pressed cacao products should be used – the beans, nibs, powder and butter. Ensure that other ingredients used with cacao are unprocessed and free of sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy and dairy.
“Adding milk to the process, however (to create the milk chocolate bars you find in most grocery stores), cancels out the beneficial antioxidant effects. In fact, researchers suggest proteins in the milk bind with antioxidants, making them less easily absorbed by your body. That’s not surprising, considering how pasteurized milk affects you.” Dr Joseph Mercola.
Here’s some ways you can incorporate cacao into your diet:
Add 1 tbsp cacao powder to 1-4 cups fluid (depending on desired strength). Mix into hot and cool drinks, such as water, coconut water, teas, coffee, smoothies and milks (coconut, almond or rice).
Use the powder in delicious snack and desert recipes. As the cacao butter has been extracted from the powder, adding the nibs or butter to the cacao powder recipes gives a creamier texture and taste.
Snack on or use the cacao nibs in food and drink recipes. It’s a delicious and healthy addition to smoothies, particularly where green superfood powders have been used.
Add the butter (cacao butter) to chocolate drinks and other recipes to create an amazing creamy chocolate taste.
Enjoy raw cacao products, such as raw chocolate bars, as a treat. Be sure they aren’t sweetened with agave, sugar or artificial sweeteners. Safer alternatives include coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup or rice malt syrup.
Cacao is synergistic with other super foods and herbs, meaning that foods and herbs that are eaten with cacao are absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream. Enjoy cacao with green powders (barley grass, spirulina, wheatgrass, chlorella), other super foods (bee pollen, coconut), spices (cinnamon, cayenne), herbs (ginger), berries (goji, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries), fruit (banana, pear, apple), nuts (almond, cashew, hazelnut, brazil nut) and seeds (chia, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin).
Set aside the guilt trip and enjoy the benefits of using raw cacao products in your diet.
Kasey is a qualified Naturopath and Nutritionist who runs a busy Adelaide based clinic ‘Aloe Health’. For Kasey, Nutrition is such a fundamental part of achieving true health. With a special interest in digestive and hormone health and through her clinic, speaking, writing and online projects, Kasey aims to educate many others to reach their health and happiness potential.
To keep up to date with what Kasey's up to on socail media and what she's writing about, check out the links below:
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[i] Rein, D., et al. Cocoa inhibits platelet activation and function. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 72(1):30-35, 2000.
[ii] Baba, S., et al. Continuous intake of polyphenolic compounds containing cocoa powder reduces LDL oxidative susceptibility and has beneficial effects on plasma HDL-cholesterol concentrations in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 85(3):709-717, 2007.
[iii] Buijsse, B., et al. Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: the Zutphen elderly study. Arch Intern Med. 166(4):411-417, 2006.
Cohen, D. L., et al. Cocoa ingestion and hypertension-another cup please? J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 9(8):647-648, 2007.
[iv] Osawa, K., et al. Identification of cariostatic substances in the cacao bean husk: their anti-glucosyltransferase and antibacterial activities. Journal of Dental Research. 80(11):2000-2004, 2001.
[v] Schuier, M., et al. Cocoa-related flavonoids inhibit CFTR-mediated chloride transport across T84 human colon epithelia. Journal of Nutrition. 135(10):2320-2325, 2005.
[vi] Heinrich, U., et al. Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women. Journal of Nutrition. 136(6):1565-1569, 2006.
[vii] Heinrich, U., et al. Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women. Journal of Nutrition. 136(6):1565-1569, 2006.