Revered for its health benefits since the 16th century as a Mayan cocoa drink, cacao the part of chocolate that comes from the cocoa bean, has recently been the subject of numerous studies. The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value of cacao is higher than blueberries, strawberries, red wine, and black and green teas. In fact, amazingly, cacao has more antioxidant flavonoids and phytonutrients than any food studied. Among the many health benefits, studies have found improved kidney function, increased insulin sensitivity and cognitive and mood enhancement. Research has also shown the following amazing cardiovascular benefits from its flavanols:
• dilated blood vessels • lower blood pressure • an anti-clotting effect similar to the daily aspirin benefit • prevention of additional neural damage in the case of a stroke • improved function of endothelial cells (cells lining the arteries) • higher anti-oxidant levels in the blood • lower levels of LDL-cholesterol – the so called “bad cholesterol”
Healthy Chocolate Choices
While chocolate is available in many forms, the types of chocolate vary according to the proportion of cacao used in each. If you are into eating chocolate for its health benefits as well as its satisfying deliciousness, there are a few ways to get the biggest bang for the bite.
1. First and best is raw cacao in the form of cacao nibs. Raw cacao is an amazing superfood due to its high mineral and antioxidant content. Even the 40-50% fat found in cacao seeds in the form of cocoa butter is highly nutritious, sometimes used as a substitute for cod-liver oil and as a prescribed part of a diet during the last days of pregnancy. Since many of the special properties of cacao are destroyed or lost by cooking, refining, and processing, raw nibs offer the purest form of readily edible cacao. How to use them? See recipe ideas below.
2. Cocoa powder is the nonfat part of the cocoa bean. The cocoa we know and love is usually combined with sugar, cocoa butter, and soy lecithin. Adding milk to chocolate counters the health benefits by blocking the activity of the phytochemicals responsible for the powerful antioxidant activity of cacao. Hence my new favorite healthy chocolate drink–the “Tcho shot”. Tcho chocolate in San Francisco produces a fabulous drinking chocolate that retains the fruitiness of the cacao bean. When combined in small doses with boiling water, the ensuing shot of hot chocolate is the richest, most delicious chocolate drink I’ve ever tasted.
3. Dark Chocolate – In order to get the health benefits from edible chocolate, seventy percent cacao or higher is the optimal amount. Make sure “70%” is disclosed on the package and be wary of the term “dark chocolate” which, for some brands, can actually be as low as 35% cacao as the U.S. has no standard requirement for dark chocolate. In cooking, dark chocolate is synonymous with semisweet, and extra dark with bittersweet, although the ratio of cocoa butter to solids may vary. There are many great choices of high-end chocolate bars boasting 70% and higher. For my Chocolate Chip Sweet Potato Antioxidoodles™, I use a delicious 70% chocolate chip packaged for the consumer under Whole Foods’ own brand.