Let’s sing the praises of chocolate! Dark, creamy, sweet and bitter – a little chocolate makes everything better. As far as “treats” go, you could do far worse.
Chocolate in the many forms we know and love is derived from the pods of the cacao tree. Ripe pods boast 20 to 50 beans each, which are then fermented to reduce bitterness. After cleaning and roasting, the shells are cracked to reveal the “nibs” found within. These are usually ground into an oily paste and blended according to manufacturer’s needs.
The potential health benefits of chocolate are many. Most importantly, cacao is a great source of magnesium. That’s one of the reasons some women crave chocolate during menstruation, when they’re low in that mineral. Magnesium balances brain chemistry, builds strong bones, and is associated with feelings of happiness. Cacao is also high in sulfur, which helps form strong nail and hair and clear skin. It also detoxifies the liver and supports healthy pancreatic function. Perhaps best of all, cacao also contains the chemicals phenylethylamine (PEA) and anandamide. PEA is an adrenal-related chemical that we create naturally when we’re in love. It also plays a role in feeling focused and alert. Anandamide is also known as the “bliss” chemical, because we release it when we feel great. Chocolate really does make us happy!
Now for the bad news. All these great benefits are from the raw form of chocolate. So eating a Hershey’s bar isn’t going to cut it. When the cacao is roasted to create most of the chocolate-y products we crave, it increases the amount of theobromine and oxalic acid. Theobromine is a caffeine-like chemical which carries all the negative health effects of caffeine itself. Oxalic acid has been shown to inhibit calcium absorption. Additionally, most chocolate goodies are usually mixed with refined sugars and mucus-forming dairy products.
While eating organic cacao nibs or creating your own raw confections is the most supportive chocolate choice, there are some “over the counter” chocolate products I recommend. Vital Choice offers organic bars with 80% cacao content. Dagoba also has some high cacao content organic bars. Their milk chocolate, however, does not offer the same health benefits as the dark. There are other great manufacturers out there besides these two. Your best guideline is to buy organic, fair trade when possible. Try to go for the highest cacao content that still tastes good to you. If 80 percent is too bitter, try 74.
Have a chocolate taste-test party! Try out different brands and styles. I wouldn’t recommend turning into a Willy Wonka type, but enjoy yourself and have fun experimenting with delicious chocolate goodness!