Superfood Spotlight: Chocolate
Just in time for the holiday season, we’re here to remind you that chocolate can be good for us (yasss!). Cacao powder has many health benefits for our body, mind, and mood. Before you reach for that chocolate bar, learn what type is best, and why.
Cacao vs. cocoa: what’s the difference?
We’ve all heard that dark chocolate is good for us, but when faced with the different varieties, it can be confusing to know which form of chocolate is best and how they vary. To break it down, cacao powder and cocoa powder differ in how they are processed from the raw cacao beans. Raw cacao powder is made from cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans, while cocoa undergoes heavier processing from roasting the beans at high temperatures. This reduces nutrients, beneficial enzymes, and antioxidant levels but leaves a sweeter, milder taste. This form is typically combined with dairy, sugar, and other additives to make the milk chocolate candy we recognize at the store. It’s the addition of these extra items that make it less healthy. Raw cacao is much higher in antioxidant flavanols (much higher than blueberries, in fact!), though its taste is quite bitter. Reach for the least processed version when possible.
What are the health benefits of chocolate?
In addition to being a powerhouse of antioxidants (which fight free radicals to reduce cellular damage), chocolate has many additional health benefits. Raw or dark chocolate can provide a dose of important minerals and possible health benefits, such as:
Elevate mood: There’s a reason why the sweet stuff leaves us feeling blissful. Chocolate contains the chemicals phenylethylamine (PEA), serotonin, dopamine, and anandamide, which help lift our mood, improve feelings of wellbeing, and keep depression at bay.
Protect heart health: A compound in chocolate called theobromine acts as a vasodilator—helping to open blood vessels and improve circulation. Due to antioxidants and flavanols, chocolate has also been associated with lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL cholesterol (which leads to plaque build up in artery walls). Its anti-clotting properties also help lower the risk of stroke in aging adults.
Improve cognitive function and memory: Studies have shown that antioxidant-rich chocolate can help neurovascular coupling—which refers to how the blood flow changes in response to brain activity. This is important for sharp thinking and memory, and may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Regulate insulin levels: The flavonol, epicatechin, has been shown to strengthen insulin sensitivity and regulate glucose production.
Provide important minerals: Chocolate is one of the richest sources of magnesium. Magnesium is vital for many functions in the body such as energy production, muscle and nerve function, bone formation, calcium absorption, heart health, and lessening anxiety. Cacao is also rich in iron, an important mineral for building red blood cells that transport oxygen throughout the body. Other minerals found in this superfood include calcium, copper, zinc, and manganese.
How to incorporate raw cacao in your diet
You can add raw cacao powder to smoothies, yogurt, hot chocolate, ‘nice’ cream, or incorporate into baked goods. Raw cacao nibs—broken up pieces of the cacao bean—can replace chocolate chips in some recipes or top snacks for an added crunch. We’re not going to pretend that raw cacao tastes the same as milk chocolate (we’d be lying) as it does have a bitter taste. Therefore, it’s best combined with something that has a natural sweetness. But watch added dairy—as dairy can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb the wonderful phytonutrients.
The bottom line is this: moderate consumption of dark chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. To reap the benefits, add raw cacao to your diet or opt for dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao solids (vs. milk chocolate or white chocolate). The less processed the better, as too much added fat and sugar can counteract the health benefits. But most importantly, make sure to incorporate it in such a way that pleases your taste buds, too. Life’s too short not to enjoy what makes you happy.
Coconut butter hot chocolate recipe
As temperatures dip, cozy up with this deliciously satisfying and healthier take on hot cocoa.
- 1 ounce, dark dairy-free chocolate, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons cacao powder
- 2 tablespoons coconut butter
- pinch of sea salt
- 2 Medjool dates, softened
- 2 ½ cups unsweetened, nondairy milk of choice
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients in upright blender. Blend the mixture on high until the raw chocolate is scattered throughout and looks like tiny flecks.
Warm the coconut butter hot chocolate mixture on the stove in a small saucepan on medium heat, whisking frequently. When it’s simmering, steamy, and frothy on top, it’s ready. Pour into two mugs, and enjoy. Top with some grated chocolate.
*Note: you can add a dash of cayenne pepper, cinnamon, tocos, reishi, pine pollen (I added bliss booster to mine) or top with coconut whip.