In keeping with the positive, light-hearted spirit of the season, this week’s post serves as a gift. So often it seems that most healthy recommendations involve cutting out the “good” stuff. However, some of the traditional “good” stuff can actually be good for you, and that includes almost everyone’s favorite: chocolate.
Now hopefully you didn’t just cut your reading of this article off there and inhale the nearest chocolate bar. The type of chocolate and accompanying ingredients dictate whether or not its consumption can empower or devour you. Oh come on, you didn’t think it was going to be that easy.
When we talk about “healthy” chocolate, we are referring to pure, organic dark chocolate. This type of chocolate is actually quite bitter on its own, which is why if you buy a manufactured dark chocolate product it usually comes to the party with an entourage of sugars, unhealthy artificial sweeteners, soy, etc.
As with any product, you’re going to want to take the time to scan the ingredients and make your decision based upon your knowledge, what’s important to you and what research you believe. To ensure you reap some of the benefits we are about to go over, you’re going to want to choose a product that lists cacao as the main ingredient.
The cacao tree (aka cocoa tree) is a small tree indigenous to the tropical regions of Central and South America. Its seeds serve as the source for various forms of cacao such as powder, paste or butter. All of which can be used to make what we know and love as chocolate. As with all foods, the less processing before it enters your pie hole, the better.
One of chocolate’s main beneficial properties comes from the presence of a large quantity of antioxidants such as polyphenols and flavonoids. We throw terms like antioxidants around so much that a brief review will help illustrate the benefits.
While we function throughout the day, millions of cells are constantly performing functions on a microscopic level that enable us to live. A by-product of this cellular function or oxidation, is what are referred to as free radicals. Free radicals are a highly reactive chemical species that cause damage to cells throughout the body contributing to everything from cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, and cataracts (to name a few). When functioning properly, our bodies are designed to discard harmful free radicals up to a certain point. However, things such as stress, poor diet, sickness, strenuous exercise, and smoking can lead to a level of free radicals that exceeds our body’s natural capacity to break them down.
If you are alive, it is impossible to avoid the formation of free radicals. The trick is to limit the formation AND provide your body with added free radical fighters, or anti-oxidants. Many foods and supplements possess anti-oxidative properties (measured as ORAC), but pure cacao boosts three to ten times the anti-oxidative properties than foods like blueberries or cranberries.
Many of chocolate’s beneficial properties are mainly a consequence of what was just explained. Reported benefits include:
Improved glucose metabolism/diabetic control
Controlling blood pressure
Improved heart health and overall cardiovascular system
Anti-inflammatory (ah inflammation, the common denominator in almost every pathology)
Relatively high levels of resveratrol which has been shown to be potently neuro-protective and possibly life extending
Recent research has even found that regular consumption of an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day led to a reduction in stress hormones and anxiety.
Remember, this is not an open invitation to go on a no holds barred, unsensored chocolate binge. If you do choose to add a mostly pure form of chocolate to your regimen, it should be consumed in moderation (one study noted 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day, which is about a half a bar a week to be optimal) and in addition to all of the other lifestyle changes we continuously harp on.
Many of these benefits are due to the anti-oxidative properties, which is highest in pure cacao powder and progressively drops off in unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and milk chocolate (milk can actually prevent the absorption of some anti-oxidants); respectively. Also, remember the more processed, the longer the list of ingredients and higher sugar content, the higher the collateral damage and diminishing effects on the benefits.
Natural, organic cacao powder, paste, butter can be purchased online or at most health food stores. You can use this to add a tasty boost to your smoothie or as the main ingredient in your holiday hot chocolate. With a little bit of preparation, research and experimentation, you can also create your own “healthy” chocolate. If it’s too bitter, you can use a natural sweetener such as stevia or xylitol.
So go get yourself some cacao powder, a little bit of stevia, mix it with your heated reverse osmosis water and some coconut or almond milk to enjoy a holiday classic that tastes great while also providing a health boosting punch.
Sepehr Bahadorani, Arthur J Hilliker. Cocoa confers life span extension in Drosophila melanogaster. Nutr Res. 2008 Jun;28(6):377-82