Just before sitting down to write this blog, I ate a few squares of a dark chocolate “baking” bar. In terms of ingredients, this bar boasts 100% cacao. There are no added flavorings, salt, sugar or vanilla. The solitary ingredient is organic, unsweetened chocolate. Talk about intense! Why would I do this to myself? When writing, I want my brain to be supremely alert. At the same, I don’t want to feel agitated or stressed about the task at hand. In recent years, a growing body of research has found that dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain, reduces perceived fatigue and stress, and may even, counteract some of the symptoms of age-related cognitive decline. The last part is a preventive measure!
If you’ve ever tasted authentic dark chocolate that doesn’t contain additives, you know that it has a rather bitter taste. Cacao beans, cacao nibs and pure cocoa powders bear little resemblance to the desserts most people associate with chocolate. Generally speaking, darker chocolate tends to have a higher cacao content and more astringent characteristics. Since many consumers prefer a milder flavor, manufacturers often process cacao in ways that mellow it. Unfortunately, such processing reduces the levels of desirable antioxidants. Not to worry. By the time you’re done reading this blog, you’ll know how to derive all the goodness of pure cacao in a delicious package you can easily make at home.
Diabetes and Heart Disease Protection
Currently, dark chocolate’s reputation is at an alltime high. This has largely to do with the benefits of flavonoidrich cocoa as regards cardiometabolic protection. Cardiometabolic diseases are conditions that are associated with diabetes, heart disease and obesity. In the past, chocolate candy was thought to be a risk factor in cardiometabolic diseases.
After all, how could a food that’s typically high in fat and sugar be good for you? As it turns out, eating the right chocolate regularly may actually lower the risk of diabetes. In fact, a large study determined that eating two or more servings a week lowered the incidence of diabetes by about 17%.
Having said that, where cocoa really shines is as a cardioprotective food. Numerous trials reveal that dark chocolate promotes cardiovascular health in several ways. For starters, it has been shown to lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure and fasting blood glucose. Cocoa, likewise, promotes healthy circulation by inhibiting platelet "stickiness" or aggregation, reduces vascular stiffness and supports endothelial function a process needed to dilate blood vessels. Additionally, even a mall amount of dark chocolate, as little as 12.7 grams/day, is capable of raising HDL ("good") cholesterol in healthy and obese individuals. These findings almost make this popular treat sound like a prescription drug. Interestingly, scientists are now discovering that cocoa contains active ingredients that are very similar to, but much safer than, conventional medications used to manage hypertension and type2 diabetes.
Will I gain weight?
A study in the September 2014 issue of the journal Nutrients addressed this very issue. The authors of the trial discovered that adding dark chocolate to a meal significantly lowered subsequent calorie intake. That said, the type of chocolate you choose can make a big difference. Up until last year, I recommended making hot cocoa and other chocolate treats using pure cocoa powder.
This made the most sense to me because cocoa powder is rich in antioxidants, fiber and is low in calories. Besides, some of the most impressive research of late has featured ground cocoa. One study even found that a cocoa powder drink helps protect against influenza. However, reluctantly, I no longer endorse or use cocoa powder.
Heavy Metal Contamination
Two widely publicized investigations have uncovered potential dangers in many cocoa products. It’s a little known fact that cocoa powders are often very high in cadmium and lead toxic heavy metals that can cause neurological impairment, organ damage and reproductive harm. I want to emphasize that this refers to name brand products that you’re likely to find at your local health food store or market. This is vital information for anyone who eats chocolate regularly, especially children and women who may become pregnant.
The good news is that there are still some “clean" cocoa products from which you can choose. It turns out that chocolate bars are much lower in heavy metals than cocoa powders. That’s why I now recommend eating a daily serving of a high cacao (70% or more cacao content) bar instead of using cocoa powder. If you find that too bitter or intense, you can use the following recipe. At home, I make hot cocoa by combining three squares of an organic 100% cacao bar, a few ounces of coconut cream, a cup of purified water, a pinch of sea salt and sweetener to taste. Personally, I use liquid stevia in order to keep the sugar content low. Heat and mix the ingredients well and enjoy it hot or cold!
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
Second Photo Credit: iravgustin/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: iko/shutterstock.com