Cacao is known as the food (or drink) of the Gods (along with being a food of love)! It has been traced back to the Maya people who were thought to be the first to cultivate the cacao plant around 400AD. Although our Paleo ancestors may not have come across chocolate, or even the cacao bean too often, dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health.
Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, is actually rather nutritious. It contains soluble fiber and is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. The flavanols are what make the chocolate bitter, so manufacturers often remove them, however, it's those flavanols that are responsible for many of chocolate's health benefits.
Cacao also contains many minerals including iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. Cacao also contains a good fatty acid profile, the majority of which are saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fats.
The benefits of cacao, although numerous, relate to the raw cacao product or minimally processed, minimally sweetened nigh cacao content dark chocolate – I am not talking about mass produced, sugar, dairy and additive filled milk chocolate.
Benefits of Eating Chocolate
Improves Blood Flow and Lowers Blood Pressure
Studies (1; 2) show that cacao and dark chocolate can improve blood flow and lower blood pressure. This is in part due to flavanols in dark chocolate which can stimulate the endothelium, the lining of arteries, to produce Nitric Oxide. One of the functions of this gas is to direct arterial relaxation, which lowers resistance to blood flow and therefore reduces blood pressure.
Reduces Heart Disease Risk
Consuming dark chocolate can improve several important risk factors for heart disease.
Cocoa powder has been found to significantly decrease oxidized LDL cholesterol in men along with increasing HDL and lowering total LDL.
Oxidized LDL means that the LDL particle has reacted with free radicals making it highly reactive and capable of damaging other tissues including the lining of the arteries in your heart. The anti-oxidants in cacao, cocoa and dark chocolate are what provide the protective properties to the cholesterol.
Improves Insulin Sensitivity
Dark chocolate has been shown to have a positive effect on blood sugar markers and reduce insulin resistance. This condition is another common risk factor for non-communicable diseases, including heart disease.
Supports Optimal Brain Function
Those fantastic flavonols in dark chocolate have also been shown to improved blood flow to the brain. In the short term, the caffeine and theobromine, found in cocoa can improve brain function due to their stimulating properties. Furthermore, eating chocolate can support verbal fluency and improve cognitive function in the elderly presenting with mental impairment.
Keeps Your Skin Beautiful
The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may are good for your skin.
The flavonols protect against sun-induced damage, improve blood flow to the skin and increase skin density and hydration.
Furthermore, cacao butter has been noted to help with sensitive skin problems such as irritations, eczema and dermatitis.
Cocoa butter has been widely used to reduce or prevent stretch marks. Although no substantial clinical evidence exists to support this, the butter provides deep hydration and antioxidants to fight free radicals which in turn keep your skin supple and moist, and can thus prevent or reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Makes You Feel Good
Eating chocolate makes you happy! It contains phenylethylamine which is responsible for mood and pleasure – similar feeling to when you are in love. Cocao also contains serotonin and dopamine which further support good mood and ‘pleasure’ feelings.
Anandamide, a polyphenol which binds with cannabinoid receptors, is also present in chocolate. The endocannabinoid system stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging relaxation (your rest and digest system).
And best of all – chocolate tastes great!
Choosing Your Indulgence
The closer your cocoa is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value. Ideally, your chocolate or cocoa should be consumed raw (cacao).
When selecting chocolate, you can optimize its nutritional punch by looking for higher cacao and lower sugar content. In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao. However, cacao is fairly bitter, and the higher the percentage cacao, the more bitter it is. To counteract this bitterness, most commercial chocolate is sweetened. Choosing becomes a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability.
Your goal then is to find a chocolate that's as minimally processed as possible, but still palatable. You don't want to eliminate too many of the health benefits by eating a product that contains a lot of sugar and chemicals. Choose chocolate with a cocoa/cacao percentage of about 70 or higher. When following a Paleo diet where refined sugars are eliminated, you will probably experience great pleasure and understand the flavor profiles of darker, less sweet varieties.
If you can tolerate the flavor of raw cacao, then that is the absolute best option.
Milk chocolate is not a good choice as it contains dairy and large quantities of refined sugar, neither of which are part of the Paleo nutrition template. White chocolate is also high in sugar and contains none of the phytonutrients, and is thus a less than optimal option too. Dark chocolate is your best option.
How to Use Cacao
Cacao powder can be added to smoothies, to make chocolate desserts or to make a delicious hot chocolate when combined with your non-dairy milk of choice.
Cacao butter can be used in conjunction with cacao powder and natural sweetener to make your own chocolate. It is also great to add to raw deserts or nut bases to hold them together and can be used in the place of coconut oil. It will add a lovely velvety, chocolate flavour. Cacao butter is edible but it is also used in skin care products. Make sure to always get nutritional quality.
Cacao nibs add a lovely crunch to muffins, ice-cream or as a topping on your favourite dessert. They are also great to add to your favourite granola mix for breakfast or on top of a smoothie
The benefits of chocolate are obvious, but as with any indulgence, it is easy to overconsume. Learn to eat mindfully and savor each bite which is easier when choosing organic, dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa content. Although dark chocolates often contain some sugar, the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain.