Have your (chocolate) cake & eat it too…

Wellness blog - Dr Claire Maguire

Chocolate gets a bad rap about being unhealthy, but with Chocolate Week just gone by and lots of talk about the health dangers of sugar, it has urged me to write about the good side of chocolate.

How can chocolate be good for you? To make the chocolate confectionary that we all know and love, raw cacao beans are roasted to form cacoa and then combined with sugar and fats. So the ‘bad’ part of our usual chocolate treats is really the added fat and processed sugar. And actually, raw cacao has many health benefits! Read more of my blogs about the danger of sugar here.

Raw cacao/chocolate contains many important vitamins and minerals (ref: Built Lean) including:

  • Magnesium, and other essential minerals including calcium, sulphur, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, and manganese
  • Polyphenols called flavonoids, with antioxidant properties
  • Vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B5, B9, E
  • Essential heart-healthy fat: oleic acid a monounsaturated fat
  • Protein
  • Fibre

But what does this all essentially mean and how is this good for me?

Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power. Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate.

In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot. My previous blog – Smooth(ie) Operator – mentions how flavanols can also provide an instant boost to our attention levels for up to 5 hours!

However all chocolate is not equal. The cocoa bean naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favourite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.), the more flavanols are lost. (Ref: Benefits of Chocolate).

So raw cacao still has a high level of flavanols as it’s not been through these processing stages!

As well as all these benefits there appear to be many other reasons why raw cacao may be good for us (ref: Built Lean):

Raw chocolate can promote cardiovascular function & health
The antioxidant power of flavonoids and essential minerals and vitamins found in cacao can support healthy heart functioning by lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow, lowering LDL cholesterol, and reducing plaque build-up on artery walls.

Raw chocolate can neutralize free radicals
High levels of antioxidants protect the body from a build-up of free radicals from sun exposure, pollution, cigarette smoking, etc., which may damage healthy body tissue giving rise to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Raw Chocolate can improve digestion
A sufficient amount of fibre delivered with each serving of cacao supports digestion while cacao stimulates the body’s production of digestive enzymes.

Raw chocolate can enhance physical and mental wellbeing
There are many components of cacao including alkaloids, proteins, beta-carotene, leucine, linoleic, lipase, lysine and theobromine, that all work together to improve physical and mental health. For example, theobromine helps to stimulate the central nervous system, relax smooth muscles, and dilate blood vessels, giving the body a boost of energy; “bliss” chemicals found in cacao help to increase circulation and availability of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in brain, improving mood and combating depression. Theobromine has also been identified as one of the compounds contributing to chocolate’s reputed role as an aphrodisiac (ref: Wikipedia).  So it’s not the sugar that gives us that wellbeing feeling when we eat chocolate!

So there you go, raw cacao has many health benefits.  I believe it should be included as one of the Superfoods!

But what about the fat and sugar in chocolate?

Let’s firstly talk about the fat & sugar in general chocolate confectionery. Unfortunately, these mass produced, cheap chocolate products use highly refined sugar and cheap fats such as palm oil so there’s very little cacao butter/oil at all. These products have no health benefits at all – actually the opposite, so best avoided!

The fat in raw chocolate, however, comes from pure cocoa butter which is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it makes up less than one-third of the fat in raw chocolate.

For sweetener in raw chocolate creations, it may be honey, agave, dates etc depending on the recipe. Also if you make it yourself you then have the choice to add as little sweetener as you wish… So not only a healthier option but you can also reduce the amount to suit you.

So how to eat raw cacao for the benefits?

Firstly there are raw cacao nibs which are just plain raw cacao pieces, so no added sweetener. You can add these to your morning smoothie, or sprinkle over your breakfast cereal or porridge. It’s also great added to trail mix for an afternoon snack.

Then you can use raw cacao powder to make easy delicious afternoon teas and desserts such as moist raw chocolate brownies and chocolate mousse.

There are also recipes with raw cacao powder and cacao butter for decadent chocolate treats, such as our rich chocolate orange torte. Here’s Claire’s basic raw chocolate recipe. They are delicious and rich so you only need a couple to satisfy your chocolate craving. There is an endless list of fillings and flavours which work brilliantly with this basic raw chocolate recipe so feel free to get creative and try different variations.

Claire’s wonderful recipe book, Fresh & Sophisticated – the art of radiant eating, has more delicious, healthy, simple chocolate recipes. Click here to read more

Raw chocolate goodies are not only a healthy option but so easy to make as no baking, plus all gluten free, sugar free, dairy free & soy free.

A couple of points to note:

  • Raw cacao is a stimulant so it is advised not to consume it too late as to not interfere with a good night’s sleep!
  • Be careful not to overdose on raw cacao as there is such a thing as theobromine poisoning from having too much! So it does appear that we can have too much of a good thing! This is why pets such as dogs can’t eat chocolate; it is the throbromine that makes them so sick.

So, it’s not what you eat, but the way that you eat it – especially when it comes to chocolate!

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