The scientific name for chocolate, Theobroma Cacao means food of the gods and Americans consume over 3 billion pounds of chocolate each year. With Valentine’s Day, a day where chocolate often symbolizes love itself, just a week away, you may find yourself wondering, “Is chocolate Paleo?”
Since chocolate is made from chocolate or cacao beans, you might guess that chocolate poses the same issues. Legumes, although not that bad from a health perspective, are still pretty low in nutrients and often exacerbate digestive issues.
Delving deeper however, cacao beans are simple case of mis-naming. Chocolate beans are not actually beans. Rather, they’re the seeds of a fruit, much like a cashew (which is technically not a nut).
Although chocolate is not Paleo in the sense that ancient man was definitely not eating it by the bar, dark chocolate is allowed in moderation on the Paleo diet. This is, in part due to the numerous health benefits that have been correlated with the cacao component of chocolate.
This should go without saying, but there are huge differences in how healthy a certain bar or type of chocolate might actually be.
Many conventional chocolate bars are filled with vegetable oils and corn syrup, which are in no way part of a Paleo protocol or any healthy diet for that matter. Similarly, milk chocolates contain pasteurized and homogenized milk which again, is something the Paleo diet encourages avoiding.
Even high-quality and pricey dark chocolates can have a variety of unsavory ingredients. When choosing your chocolate, it is incredibly important to pay attention to the ingredients. If your bar contains anything other than chocolate, some form of sugar, cocoa butter and some flavorings, it is probably not your best choice to support your Paleo goals.
For most dark chocolate, a percentage (e.g., 60%, 72%, 85%, etc.) will probably be printed on the package. That percentage technically refers to the amount of cacao in the bar. This would imply that an 85% dark chocolate bar would be 85% cocoa by mass.
Other than small amounts of other ingredients, the remaining 15% in this bar would be comprised of sugar. This is not necessarily a terrible thing but it is important to create awareness around it, particularly if you are sensitive to sugar, are insulin resistant, or are challenged with sugar cravings. Many people will eat even a small amount of dark chocolate and start craving other sugar-laden, sweet things.
If you have been following your Paleo lifestyle for a while, you are most likely well aware of how you deal (or don’t deal) with eating sugar, and where your tolerance is for small amounts of processed sugar in your diet. This will allow you to determine whether dark chocolate may or may not be something you want to include in your diet.
That being said, chocolate in itself may actually be supportive of your health!
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
The plant compounds and 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!
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Tips for Selecting the Healthiest Chocolate:
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 choosing your 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 the ever-important taste factor.
- Select dark chocolate containing at least 60% Cacao (the higher the percentage, the less sugar & the more health benefits) — You will not experience the same health benefits from milk chocolate or white chocolate
- Choose organic chocolate (they won't contain harmful pesticide residues or GMOs)
- Read the ingredients and choose chocolate that does NOT contain high fructose corn syrup, fillers, emulsifiers, artificial flavoring, and any ingredient that sounds like it belongs in a chemistry lab
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 diet. White chocolate is also high in sugar and contains none of the phytonutrients, making it another less than optimal option.
If you'd rather make your own chocolate-y treat, check out Chef Pete’s recipe for Decadent Raw Chocolate. All you need is a couple of bites to satisfy your craving and it tastes delicious – whether you are Paleo or not.
Decadent Raw Chocolate
Yields 2-4 servings
- 2 tbsp Coconut Oil (melted)
- 1 tbsp Raw Cacao or unsweetened Cocoa Powder
- A couple drops stevia (or sweetener of your choice like honey, maple syrup, or coconut palm sugar) to sweeten
- A TINY shake of sea salt to bring out the flavor (optional)
Put coconut oil, cacao/cocoa powder, stevia (or other sweetener) and sea salt in a small bowl
Use a spoon to mix until smooth
Line a small plate or ramekin with parchment paper or wax paper (alternatively, candy molds work great too)
Pour mixture into the lined plate/ramekin or mold
Place in freezer for 10 minutes (or until solid)
Peel chocolate away from the paper or mold
Store leftovers in freezer
- To make Raw Chocolate Bark: Add crushed nuts and/or seeds to the mixture in step #1 (e.g. almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds) and/or goji berries, shredded coconut, or cacao nibs
- To heat up the flavor: Add cayenne pepper to step #1