Food of the Gods or Dieters’ Nightmare?

Can you guess what I’m referring to?

Chocolate, of course.  With Easter fast approaching and the shops overrun with every kind and size of chocolate egg possible, it’s hard not to think about the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth sweet stuff.

Chocolate is, without a doubt, one the most craved-for foods of all time. It makes us feel good. Well, that is until the guilt of indulging, or even overindulging, kicks in.

Chocolate Easter bunnies aside, most of us turn to chocolate at times of celebration or desperation. You might share a bar of chocolate with friends at the end of a lovely meal. Or, you might devour a whole slab of chocolate locked away in your bedroom at the start of your dreaded period.

So what’s the deal with chocolate? Is it our friend or foe?  Is it good for you or does it solely serve to pile on the pounds and the guilt? 

The answer depends on the type of chocolate you’re eating. Most of the chocolate consumed nowadays is full of sugar and nasty ingredients.

Here’s a piece of chocolate’s history for you:

Chocolate comes from cacao beans, which are seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree native in tropical regions of South and South America. Research shows it was first consumed in the form of a bitter frothy drink around 1900 BC in Mexico, so very different from the sweet treat we enjoy today. Cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then ground into a paste mixed with water and spices like chili peppers and vanilla and later on sweetened with honey or cinnamon.

The Mayans and Aztecs revered chocolate for its invigorating and mood enhancing properties. The Mayans worshipped a god of cacao and reserved chocolate for rulers, warriors, priests and nobles hence it became known as ‘Food of the Gods’.

It continued to be consumed only in exclusive circles until Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press in 1828. This separated the cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake that could be ground into a fine powder that was mixed with liquids and other ingredients and could be poured into moulds. Chocolate became available and affordable for the masses.

In 1847, the first solid chocolate bar, made from just 3 ingredients – cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar, was introduced by the British c company J.S. Fry & Sons. Cadburys, Hersheys, and Mars came into the picture in the 1900s and introduced the different sweet variations we have today.

So, with all the extra nasties now present in that innocent-looking bar of chocolate, you can indulge in an occasional treat but if you’re looking to enjoy something healthier and guilt-free, why not give minimally processed dark raw chocolate a try? Make sure it’s organic and fair trade and has a cacao content of at least 70%. A single square of chocolate packs a mighty punch of the most powerful antioxidants and the least amount of sugar.  The higher the percentage of cacao the greater the potential health benefits.

I know, raw chocolate is an acquired taste.  The polyphenols are what make the chocolate bitter, which is why manufacturers remove them and, as a consequence, we lose the health benefits. The good news is that you can train your palate to enjoy raw dark chocolate. My son is milk (lactose) intolerant so I decided to buy it for him. And then, of course, I had to try some too. At first, we both found it very bitter but we gradually came to enjoy it.  He and I often have a piece of raw dark chocolate in the evening after our meal. One or two pieces is enough as it is so rich, which it means a whole bar lasts a few evenings AND we don’t over-indulge and scoff the lot in one go!

So, what are the health benefits of dark raw chocolate?

A 2013 paper in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine hailed cacao as a complete food for its:

  • healthy monosaturated fats
  • high levels of antioxidants (nearly 8 times the levels of strawberries) which are critical in protecting the body from damage and ageing.
  • positive effects on our cardiovascular system, helping reduce blood pressure and cholesterol
  • high levels of minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium, all critical for the body’s efficient functioning.
  • ability to improve brain function. thought to be due to the high content of flavonoids. Various studies bear this out.  http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20160222/can-chocolate-improve-brain
  • Mood enhancing properties. It contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love.

Just an ounce of dark chocolate with 70 percent to 85 percent cacao solids contains around:

  • 168 calories
  • 12.8 grams carbohydrates
  • 2.2 grams protein
  • 12 grams fat
  • 3.1 grams fibre

Click here for a nutritional breakdown:http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/sweets/10638/2

So you can see why it has been referred to as Food of The Gods. 

Cacao v cocoa?

These can be used interchangeably but in cooking and baking, I tend to choose raw cacao powder as it retains more of its natural goodness.  Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is typically heated at much higher temperatures, destroying many of the health properties. It also often contains sugar. You could also try raw cacao nibs. A sprinkling makes a great addition to porridge or to your smoothie.

What about caffeine?

Dark chocolate contains caffeine but much less than coffee. Compare a 1.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate with 27 mg of caffeine, to the 200 mg in an eight-ounce cup of coffee. However, if you do have trouble sleeping don’t indulge in chocolate from late afternoon onwards as some people find it gets in the way of a restful night’s sleep.

So, to sum up:

If you want to enjoy the health benefits of this Food of The Gods consume dark chocolate. Look out for the highest percentage cacao content you can find (at least 70%), check the sugar content, consume in moderation, relax and relish its rich deliciousness.

Alison Middeton

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