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Who doesn’t crave the creamy, nutty, and well, downright chocolatey goodness of this dark brown delicacy every once in a while.
If you stick with the “real deal” when it comes to dark chocolate and cacao (I’ll explain exactly what that means a little later), not only will your palate thank you, your body and mind will appreciate it as well!
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What is Chocolate? It All Starts with the Cacao
Chocolate as we know it today comes from the plant called cacao, which grows in low-hanging pods on in tropical regions of the world. Ancient peoples knew about cacao’s intense stamina-enhancing properties; the beans in raw form and in other ways have been eaten for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by cultures where cacao trees grow.
It has only been over the last approximately fifteen years, however, that modern science has caught on to the immense healing benefits that cacao can bring to the table, or the foil wrapper, as the case may be.
Cacao and The Kunas
In the early 2000s, Harvard Medical School researchers began to investigate the benefits of cacao by looking at one of the oldest cultures still in existence.
The Kunas have lived for generations on Caribbean islands off the coast of Panama. Interestingly, they also have some of the lowest rates of heart disease rates globally. Researchers at Harvard University who studied them back in 2005 thought this was odd since they were (and still are) very poor. The majority of Kuna individuals do not have access to conventional medical services such as hospitals, clinics or individual doctors. What the researchers did find, however, is that the diet of a typical Kuna person included, on average, about 4 to 5 cups of a liquid cacao drink, similar to a healthy version of our “hot chocolate,” every day.
5 Reasons to Indulge (Just a Little) In That Chocolate Craving
Before I go deeper into what science has discovered about the health benefits of cacao and how it may potentially help you in specific ways, I want to be clear. I am not suggesting that you should go out and eat all the store-bought chocolate pieces, brownies, and candy bars you want!
In the last section, I will present some recommendations regarding how much of a “good thing” is healthy, and in what form. Just like with most things in life, a little goes a long way when it comes to chocolate.
#1. Chocolate is a Powerful Antioxidant
It may come as a shock to you that such a yummy “treat food” can actually help you lower oxidative stress, but it is true. Chocolate contains some of the same flavonoids that are also found in red wine and berries. These include polyphenols such as procynanidins and epicatechins, powerful antioxidants designed to attack free radicals that can lead to DNA damage.
#2. Chocolate is Heart Healthy and Can Balance Metabolism
There are several studies out there which directly link dark chocolate to cardiovascular health, a decrease in LDL levels (i.e. the bad kind of cholesterol) and lower blood pressure in general. A 2017 Chinese study found that 2 – 6 servings of chocolate a week was “associated with decreased risks of CHD, stroke, and diabetes.”
#3. Chocolate can Boost Immune Function
Cacao helps the immune system in a variety of ways, including through the introduction of essential fatty acids, encouraging an upregulation of healthy gut bacteria, the presence of flavonoids and so much more. Specifically, however, researchers have discovered that certain phytonutrients present in cacao such as theobromine can affect immune system cells directly and may even help to calm autoimmune reactions.
#4. Chocolate Helps the Brain and Mood
Cacao contains some interesting substances that are found in only a few plants in nature. One such substance is called anandamide. Anandamide is a type of fatty acid and also a neurotransmitter. It is sometimes called the “bliss molecule” because of its ability to elevate mood. In addition, anandamide supports the endocannabinoid system and is found in cannabis as well, according to a 2018 study at the Universidad Católica de Cuyo in Argentina, amongst others.
Finally, a 2015 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that consumption of cacao daily was linked to improvements in “mild cognitive impairment” amongst older adults. In part, this may be because the phytonutrients within cacao help to increase blood flow to the brain.
#5. Chocolate May be Cancer-Preventative
With all the above going on, it is no wonder that dark chocolate is also considered to be cancer-preventative when consumed in moderate amounts. Indeed, there is ample scientific evidence to support this connection.
Several studies have made the link between high levels of antioxidants in cacao and cancer cell growth inhibition. Specific kinds of cancer that have been verified by evidence-based studies include cervical, lung, breast and colon cancer, as well as leukemia.
As a side note, a 2005 study conducted at Georgetown University shed light as to exactly how cacao may be cancer protective. The researchers discovered that particular proteins in cacao had an inhibitive effect on other kinds of proteins that are known to be cancer-causing.
Of course, additional substances within cacao, including monounsaturated fats which have long been associated with cancer prevention and healing, make cacao a cancer prevention substance as well.
The Best Way to Consume Dark Chocolate
The way you “choose to indulge” in this healthy snack is largely up to you and your tastes. If you are going for health as well as satisfaction, however, you may want to take note of these basic tips:
#1. Stay away from milk chocolate. Milk chocolate often contains more butter, milk, and other dairy products than chocolate as well as a hefty amount of sugar. In the end, this option will do you more harm than good. When it comes to nutrition, stick with dark chocolate or straight cacao “nibs.”
#2. Keep it high on cacao and low on sugar. Take a stroll down any health food aisle and you will see that there are tons of options out there for dark chocolate which has low or even no sugar and is also high on the cacao end. A good percentage, according to experts, is around 56 to 70%. For a no-sugar option, try some of the tasty chocolate bar brands that use stevia or monk fruit instead of sugar.
#3. Make sure it is organic! This is a no-brainer and, of course, is the advice I would give for every consumer purchase choice you make! Going organic with your chocolate avoids unnecessary and harmful hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and GMOs.
#4. Enjoy in moderation. Stick with just one or two squares a day and you will be on your way to health and will have satisfied that chocolate craving as well. If you really want to reap healthy rewards, try munching on straight cacao “nibs” which are available at most health food stores or online.
~Recipe~ Festive Goji Berry-Coconut Raw Chocolate Balls
These balls are a favorite of mine. The red and white colors sprinkled in them make them a festive choice for this time of year.
Cacao Contains a Multitude of Common Essential Nutrients (and Some Surprising Ones Too)
All superfoods are such because of the amount of concentrated nutrients within them. Cacao, or natural chocolate, is no exception. Each cacao bean contains a hefty amount of the following vital nutrients:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol)
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B12
- Pantothenic Acid
- 3 kinds of healthy fats
- Brain, mood, and gut-healthy amino acids
And that is just the beginning! It’s safe to say that chocolate in its raw form packs “quite a punch” when it comes to the nutrients that our bodies need every day.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2019 and was updated in November 2023.
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Chocolate as we know it today comes from the plant called cacao.
Only in the last 15 years has modern science caught on to the immense healing benefits of cacao.
5 Benefits of Dark Chocolate:
- Chocolate is a Powerful Antioxidant
- Chocolate is Heart Healthy and Can Balance Metabolism
- Chocolate can Boost Immune Function
- Chocolate Helps the Brain and Mood
- Chocolate May be Cancer-Preventative
Each cacao bean contains a hefty amount of vital nutrients.