Chocolate and Health: Is there a Connection?

chocolate and health

Did you know that chocolate is a superfood? Specifically, it’s the cocoa bean, rich in healthy chemicals, that has been shown time and time again to have fantastic health benefits. The caution is that not all chocolate is created equal. Milk chocolate and the added sugar, fat and butter may be great for your taste buds, they aren’t that amazing for your health. This post explains the connection between chocolate and health bearing in mind this is also in the context of the darker chocolate varieties.

Not all Chocolate is Equal

The ingredients in chocolate varies according to type and cacao content. Cacao powder is created by fermenting, roasting, and crushing cacao beans into a paste. After the fat is removed, the remaining solids are ground into a fine powder. Dark chocolate contains cacao powder and cocoa butter. Milk chocolate is a creamier chocolate which has added milk solids, and sugar. It usually has more sugar and less cacao powder than dark chocolate. Finally white chocolate is actually not technically chocolate. It is made from cocoa fat, milk solids, sugar, and other flavourings.

Cacao vs Cocoa

This is an important distinction to make and one that is often overlooked. Cacao can refer to any of the food products derived from cacao beans. Some examples are cacao nibs, cacao butter, cacao mass or paste and cacao powder. Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. This heating process reduces the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value. Cacao powder has a higher antioxidant content than cocoa. This is also a major reason why we only use cacao powder at iRaw.

Be careful with milk!

A few recent studies have shown how milk cancels out the power of antioxidants by blocking our ability to absorb them. Furthermore, casein in milk binds with polyphenols rendering them ineffective. This further strengthens the case for choosing dark chocolate.

Raw Chocolate

We are witnessing a rise in raw chocolate products. Raw chocolate is processed at lower temperatures to retain maximum nutrients and goodness. Because the beans are not roasted, they are considered raw. What’s even more interesting is that IQ chocolate is currently gearing up to make a health claim. Their recent research is looking at a number of benefits pertaining specifically to raw chocolate as linked to sport performance and improved blood flow.

So in sum, all of these studies that preach the chocolate and health connection are not exactly talking about your average store bought chocolate bar. Not only that, with all the focus on chocolate’s polyphenol content, it makes sense to aim for ‘high-flavanol’ dark chocolate varieties that have high polyphenol counts.

Chocolate and Health: Why you Should Eat It

Chocolate is made from cacao solids, cacao fat, and other ingredients in varying proportions. Cacao is credited with an impressive array of health benefits. Dark chocolate has the perfect storm of flavour, flavonoids, and fat. This polyphenol and antioxidant capacity of cacao even supersedes the “superfruits” acai, pomegranate, cranberry and blueberry.

Some of the key benefits include:

  1. Healthy Heart: Just one square of dark chocolate a day has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart attack, all thanks to the antioxidants and flavonoids.
  2. Body Composition: Consuming a square of dark chocolate has been shown to be more satiating, therefore reducing cravings and making it easier to keep to a diet plan. Another study found that flavanol-rich cacao can increase nitric oxide production in healthy humans, thus inducing vasodilation and proving beneficial when it comes to exercise.
  3. Reduced Stress: Some studies have shown that eating dark chocolate can help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
  4. Insulin Sensitivity: Dark chocolate has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity which can help with processing of carbohydrates and energy balance in the body.

chocolate and health

What to look for when choosing your chocolate

A few things will affect the quality of chocolate. As a consumer, take care to strike the right balance between harvesting practices, processing and quality of ingredients. For those conscious consumers, ethically grown and fair traded practices will also be important.

Here are just a few points to consider:

  1. How it’s grown: Growing cacao beans on a farm where the plot of land and the branches are exposed to the harsh sunlight can have a big impact on flavour and quality. Ethical companies use a natural organic approach. This means the cacao plants are planted in the rainforest and given the chance to do what they do best, to stretch for the sun when they need it and to shrink back into the shade when they want to stay cool. The plant develops the natural and organic way.
  2. The Ripening Process: Chocolate comes from the fruit known as the theobroma cacao. As with any fruit, to produce the best taste, you pick it when it is ripe. Due to demand and cutting corners, many companies will rush to harvest the fruit and use pesticides to increase yield. Using artificial enzymes such as acetone or enzymatic polypeptides to produce a chocolate flavor eliminates the traditional and difficult step of cacao fermentation. While necessary from a manufacturing point of view, these traditional and time honored methods are fundamental to cacao flavour and nutrient value.
  3. Processing: Processing procedures, especially those that include high heat or alkalisation, can impact the antioxidant activity of cocoa/chocolate. Therefore, it is important to seek out companies that have strict manufacturing and quality control practices. This means the fruit is not only sustainably grown and fermented, but the beans are then roasted with care. Avoid this by going for higher quality chocolates. Also, look for brands that have ISO and or HACCP Certifications for their manufacturing processes.
  4. The label: Always check and analyse the label. As a start, try to look for 70% cocoa or more. Also, a quality dark chocolate typically only has three to four ingredients. Make sure the ingredients include cocoa mass (or cocoa liquor), cocoa butter and sugar. Finally, watch out for cocoa butter equivalents ingredients such as vegetable or hydrogenated oils. Of course, chocolate that is also raw and organic will also be a great choice.

Chocolate Alternatives with all the Health Benefits

There are also some great chocolate alternatives to consider which have similar health benefits.

In a previous post, we wrote about the benefits of carob that make it a great alternative and you can source locally in different forms like powder, as nibs/chips and as a flavouring. In fact, this legume is one healthy pod! It’s full of vitamin B, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium and even selenium. Carob is a source of protein, rich in fibre and plant based antioxidants.

Other examples: Ombar, Doisy and Dam,

iRaw Choco Rockets!

what are good carbsI was playing around with cookie dough as I love cakes and desserts I thought I ought to make a chocolate version of the cookies, the Lemon in Love were already a crowd-pleaser. I almost chucked these away as I felt the outcome was too sweet. Today I’m grateful that I didn’t as they are the star of the show wherever I take them. People seem to genuinely like them and get instantly addictive.

My initial thought was to reduce the bitterness from using only raw cacao and mixed it in with Mediterranean Carob. Carob has loads of health benefits and is naturally sweet. This gave me a chance to reduce the amount of sweetener that is used in the recipe. I remembered from my raw cake classes how much the people loved the combination of maple syrup and carob (which is slightly mocha like). People love coffee and chocolate … a winner don’t you think! That is what I believe makes the Choco Rockets so pleasing ‘Two for One’?

PPSSSSTTTT: For the month of September we are offering a 10% discount on all our cookies! Check out the range here:

chocolate and health choco rockets

chocolate and health pepper and mint

chocolate and health lemon in love

Lyda Borgsteijn

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