Of course, Valentine's Day is just a few days away. Plus, February is also American Heart Month and National Chocolate Lovers Month!
Is it really true that something as delicious as chocolate can also be good for our health?
The answer is YES...well, sort of. Let's dive in.
The first thing to remember is not all chocolate is created equal.
These beans grow in pods that are found on Theobroma cacao trees. These cacao pods are actually the size of a football, and each pod typically contains between 20 and 50 cacao beans. Because the pods will not fall from the tree, they must be harvested by hand...an extremely manual process!
THE GOOD NEWS: CACAO BEANS ARE A NUTRIENT POWERHOUSE!
CACAO PROVIDES MANY HEALTH BENEFITS INCLUDING:
- improved blood pressure (by helping oxygen flowing through your arteries)
- helps prevent heart disease by protecting against hardening of the arteries
- lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and higher HDL (good cholesterol)
- helps regulate insulin levels
- has even been shown to significantly improve your mood!
Once cacao beans are harvested, they are fermented and dried. This starts to give them their chocolate flavor and aroma. The future for these fermented and dried beans can now go a couple of different directions.
NUTRITIOUS CACAO NIBS AND CACAO POWDER!
A small percentage of the beans are crushed and turned into raw cacao nibs and cacao powder. Cacao nibs are finely chopped pieces of the fermented and dried cacao beans:
- They retain the beneficial nutrients!
- They are more bitter than the chocolate chips most people are used to.
- They do not melt the same as other chocolate chips, but provide a great crunch and a subtle chocolate flavor.
Some of these cacao nibs are turned into cacao powder...the nibs are cold-pressed to extract the oil (cacao butter), and then what remains is dried into a powder.
Sweetening things up!
Dark chocolate retains more cacao, meaning it retains more of the health benefits. For example, if you see 70% on a bar of dark chocolate, that means 70% of the chocolate is made up of the cacao (typically from the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter). The rest is typically made up of other ingredients (like sugar, milk powder, flavorings, emulsifying agents and others) to provide the taste and texture people love. Obviously, the lower the cacao %, the more "filler ingredients" the chocolate contains. And less cacao means less nutrition!
Most milk chocolate does not provide the same health benefits because it contains a much smaller amount of cacao (as low as 10%) and includes a lot of added sugar and other ingredients.
White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids or cocoa powder and is loaded with added sugars (some would argue it doesn't even qualify as chocolate). All the added sugars in milk chocolate and white chocolate can cause your blood sugar to spike and actually make you crave more sugar, fatty foods and carbs. If you are trying to satisfy a chocolate craving put these at the bottom of the list.
Beware of "processed with alkali" or "Dutch processed"
When cocoa is processed with alkali (or "Dutch processed"), it has been processed in a chemical solution to enhance its color, reduce its bitterness and give it a smoother texture. Unfortunately, this also dramatically reduces the nutritional content of the chocolate (by as much as 90%).
We are sorry to be the bearer of bad news...you may be shocked to know Dove chocolate and Hershey's Special Dark ARE both processed with alkali, and are NOT the healthy choice you may think they are! Better choices include the 60% or higher dark chocolate made by Endangered Species, Alter Eco, Green & Black's, Ghirardelli, Lindt and Moser Roth (found at Aldi stores). But still read those ingredients because, for example, Moser Roth 70% bars are NOT processed with alkali, but 85% bars are...go figure!
SO MANY WAYS TO ENJOY CHOCOLATE!
We have SO MANY ideas to enjoy the taste and nutrition of cacao and dark chocolate on the website. Just a few of our member favorites include:
Of course, we can't forget Hot Chocolate!
Embrace cacao nibs, cacao powder and dark chocolate without guilt in all your favorite chocolate treats!
Happy Valentine's Day!
And Happy Chocolate Lovers Month!