For many women, chocolate is the ultimate comfort food. It is something we turn to in moments of stress, when we need a little energy boost, mood boost or mental boost! If this sounds like you, then this news is something that you may want to pay close attention to: chocolate is good for you! Now, before you start breaking out the family-size block, we do need to be a little more specific when it comes to exactly what type of chocolate is good for you. Not all chocolate is created equal. In fact, the majority of the chocolate that you see in the supermarket aisles today has come a long way from what real chocolate actually is. Raw cacao beans are, in fact, highly beneficial in their natural state and are one of the earth’s greatest and most potent superfoods.
Ancient tribes have used raw cacao for centuries, both as a food substance, and also ceremoniously. The botanical name for the cacao tree is Theobroma Cacao, which roughly translates as ‘food of the gods.’ With the introduction of mass-production and the commercialisation of chocolate, the sacred raw cacao beans are now chemically processed, roasted and then mixed with an overload of white sugar, hydrogenated oils and dairy products. The medicinal nature of cacao is lost in this process, a large amount of the antioxidants and flavanols are destroyed, and we lose the incredible benefits that the bean offers.
The good news is that raw, organic, real chocolate is becoming easier and easier to find. Chances are your local health food store will have raw cacao powder, raw cacao butter and raw cacao beans on its shelves. Many small chocolate companies have also returned to the traditional methods of chocolate making, ensuring high quality alongside superior flavour.
So, what are the benefits of chocolate? Let’s explore them a little further:
Why Chocolate is Good for You:
Let’s start with the nutritional overview. Raw cacao is high in a huge number of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, vitamins A, C and D, calcium, zinc, copper and potassium. Three properties worth diving a little deeper into are:
Cacao is one of the richest sources of antioxidants on the planet. It has over 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries. It has an ORAC score of 98,000 per 100g, whereas blueberries only have a score of 2,400. ORAC scores measure the ability of antioxidants to absorb free radicals in our system, which cause cell and tissue damage and can lead to diseases such as cancer.
Raw cacao contains very high amounts of magnesium, which is vital for proper heart function, relaxation of the muscles and easing anxiety. Magnesium is actually the most deficient mineral in the Western world and is not only important for a healthy heart, it also helps turn glucose into energy, enabling your brain to work with clarity and focus. Magnesium also helps to protect against osteoporosis, reduces type II diabetes, and lowers blood pressure.
Iron: Cacao is the highest plant-based source of iron known to man with 7.3mg per 100g. This surpasses beef at 2.5mg, and spinach at 3.6mg. This is great news for those on plant-based diets, although do keep in mind that the iron in cacao is non-heme, so to get the maximum benefits you’ll want to combine it with some vitamin C.
Boost Your Mood
Raw cacao is a great source of scientifically proven ‘happiness’ chemicals – serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylethylamine. Tryptophan is also a precursor to both serotonin and melatonin. These chemicals do all sorts of wonderful things like create feelings of happiness, regulate appetite, promote relaxation, help regulate sleep patterns and even alleviate depression. Cacao also contains the mood improver, anandamide – known as the bliss molecule, which creates a feeling of euphoria. Phenylethylamine is the same chemical that your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love! The natural opiates in cacao have also been proven to dull pain and increase a sense of overall well-being.
Promote Heart Health
Speaking of matters of the heart, flavanols are an anti-inflammatory and heart-protective antioxidant group that are found in abundance in cacao. Studies show that they can protect against cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of stroke, and help improve blood circulation. Cacao contains over 700 compounds and the complex antioxidants help reduce bad cholesterol and promote good cholesterol. Flavanols also restore flexibility to arteries and prevent white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels – both common causes of arterial clogging.
Stay Younger for Longer!
Now I have your attention! The Polyphenol antioxidants found in cacao belong to the same group of antioxidants as green tea and red wine. They protect our cells from premature oxidation or destruction and can keep us looking and feeling younger, longer. The flavonols in dark chocolate can also help protect the skin against sun damage and can even help to prevent sunburn. They also improve skin texture and microcirculation, increase oxygen saturation, and improve skin hydration. The sulfur in raw cacao also helps you to keep naturally shiny hair, strong nails and glowing skin. It has the ability to continuously build and rebuild collagen and keratin which is important for hair, skin and nails to get their shine whilst also playing an important role in driving nutrients into and out of cells, blood sugar regulation, tissue repair and our immune health.
Brain Function & Clarity
Students aren’t too far off the mark when reaching for that block of chocolate to pull them through an all-nighter! Cacao appears to improve cognitive function and mental alertness. Not just for students of course; studies have shown that in all age groups, cacao improves memory and increases blood flow to the brain. Flavanols are thought to reduce memory loss in older people and can help to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Natural Source of Energy
Ditch your morning coffee and opt for a hot cup of cacao or chocolate smoothie instead to boost your energy levels! Cacao energises the body without overstimulating the nervous system, giving you incredibly long-lasting energy without that coffee crash. Feel on top of your game all day long, combat fatigue, and avoid reaching for those sugary snacks or energy drinks that only leave you feeling worse in the long run.
Healthy Weight Balance
Can chocolate really help you lose weight?! Studies have shown that a small square of good-quality dark chocolate melted on the tongue 20 minutes before a meal triggers the hormones in the brain that suggest satiation, cutting the amount of food you subsequently consume. Finishing a meal with the same small trigger can reduce subsequent snacking. As noted above, a small amount of good-quality chocolate often gives us the energy boost or magnesium hit that we are actually seeking, therefore we can easily stop at a small dose as opposed to consuming a whole block!
Most women experience some kind of emotional and physical symptoms related to their menstrual cycle. These may include bloating, mood swings, irritability, sleeplessness and most commonly, food cravings. Chocolate is often the leading culprit of cravings for many women right before the onset of their period. It is thought that we specifically crave chocolate due to its ability to mimic serotonin and release endorphins, which boost the mood and ease anxiety. Other research suggests the craving for chocolate is due to its high magnesium content and the need for more calcium in the body at this time of the month.
An Ethical View
It is worth noting that over 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown by indigenous communities who are paid such a low wage that poverty is widespread. In some instances, child slaves are used, forced to engage in dangerous work such as using machetes and applying toxic pesticides. This is a big incentive to reach for a bar of fairly-traded organic chocolate when your next craving hits.
All of these pointers have most likely got you reaching for your car keys to head out for some raw cacao! Right? A little confession first: raw cacao doesn’t taste like the chocolate you may be accustomed too. Raw cacao beans are quite bitter. However, there are many ways to use raw cacao. You can, of course, buy pre-made raw organic chocolate bars, which often contain a natural sweetener such as agave nectar or coconut sugar together with the cacao for flavour.
If you buy the raw cacao beans or nibs they are best mixed with something that has a natural sweetness to balance the bitter taste of the cacao. Try mixing the nibs with nuts and a dried fruit, such as goji berries, as a snack, or blend them into smoothies. You can also add cacao powder to smoothies, or even make a raw chocolate ice cream with frozen bananas, cacao powder and cacao nibs. Yum!
From improving your memory, reducing heart disease, boosting immunity and giving you loads of energy and inner joy, cacao really is a superfood worth enjoying regularly.
To start off, try some of our favourite chocolate recipes here: