Chocolate is exchanged as a symbol of love on Valentine’s Day, and for good reason — this superfood not only encourages feelings of happiness and bliss, it also helps boost your health in the process. Read on for the lowdown on cacao, its health benefits and all the details you need to know when hunting for truly healthy chocolate.
Cocoa versus Cacao
Both cocoa and cacao come from the cacao fruit tree – the two words may be used interchangeably to describe the same food. However, the term cacao is often used to describe the raw, unprocessed, pure cacao nib; it is richer in nutrients than processed cocoa. Cocoa typically refers to a roasted and alkali-processed powder. Cocoa is still a healthy choice but with diminished nutrient properties from the refining process.
Cacao is loaded with fibre: just two tablespoons of cacao contains about 3 grams of fibre. It’s also an exceptionally rich source of magnesium, a mineral that plays a role in the prevention of osteoporosis, diabetes, migraines and cardiovascular disease.[i][ii] Cacao contains essential fatty acids and vital minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and potassium.[iii] As nutritious as cacao is, its claim to nutritional fame is its flavonol content. Flavanols are naturally occurring plant compounds associated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions in the body. Antioxidants help fight premature aging and chronic disease by scavenging free radicals before they damage cells.[iv]
Cacao for Heart Health
Both the magnesium and flavanols in cacao help lower high blood pressure – a major risk factor for heart disease.[v] Flavanols also support cardiovascular health via improved blood flow and reduced risk for blood clots; they also help lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation — all of which may help reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.[vi] [vii][viii]
Eating cacao may help boost serotonin, the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that is responsible for feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Cacao consumption is also associated with sensations of pleasure and bliss.[ix] The polyphenols in cacao may even enhance feelings of calmness and content and relieve anxiety. Early research has also shown that consuming high quality cacao regularly may help enhance cognitive performance and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.[x] [xi]
How to Buy Truly Healthy Chocolate
- All chocolate is not created equally; most commercially available chocolate bars are highly processed products, loaded with sugar and other additives that will harm your health over time. Before you buy chocolate keep the following in mind:
- Always buy dark chocolate with the highest cacao content possible – 70% or higher is ideal.
- Check the ingredients label: choose chocolate that contains the fewest added ingredients. High quality chocolate typically contains 3-4 ingredients including cacao, cacao butter and sugar.
- Avoid chocolate that uses fats other than cocoa butter e.g. coconut oil, palm oil etc.[xii]
- Choose chocolate that lists cacao/cocoa (or cacao mass) as the first ingredient because the further down the line the ingredient is listed, the smaller percentage of that ingredient there is in the product.
- Check the sugar content under the nutritional facts and choose the product that contains the least amount of added sugar
- Avoid chocolate with artificial sweeteners added (stevia is fine but chocolate sweetened with it may taste bitter).
- Keep in mind that truly healthy chocolate comes from healthy trees and quality manufacturing processes, so you should expect to pay more for topnotch chocolate. Consider organic and fair trade options.
Finally, be aware that most of the health benefits ascribed to cacao come from it’s high flavanol content and flavanols have a bitter and astringent flavour – very different from most mass produced chocolate bars.[xiii] This type of chocolate is extremely rich and just one or two squares will leave you completely happy and satisfied and once you get used to the new taste, you’ll never go back!