We hear that the benefits of dark chocolate include helping us to relax and we all know how delicious chocolate tastes; who can stop at just one square?
But does chocolate have real benefits to our health and can we forget the guilt trips when we follow our cravings for just one more piece?
It seems so, as long as we eat the right type of chocolate – that with a high content of raw cacao, cocoa butter and cocoa solids, containing little or no sugar or dairy.
Expect to pay more for the connoisseur’s version of chocolate with its pure ingredients and careful preparation. This is dark chocolate, usually marked as 70 – 80% cocoa content.
Originating in the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica, cacao beans, growing in the rainforests of those countries, were fermented, mixed with spices and wine and drunk, during ritual ceremonies, as the rather bitter ‘xocolatl’, believed to have aphrodisiac and strength-giving powers. So the benefits of dark chocolate, albeit in a different form to the modern day product, have been celebrated for centuries.
Cacao beans were used as currency so the chocolate drink was for the privileged classes, a situation that continued once it was introduced, firstly to Spain, then to other European countries (‘theobroma cacao’) . Of course, it was a popular crop for those countries which had colonised equatorial regions suited to its growth.
Dark chocolate, as we know it, was only developed in the early nineteenth century, with the addition of sugar to cocoa solids. Later, milk chocolate evolved, in Switzerland, and became popular world-wide.
Cocoa, or cacao, grows in hot, wet climates in rich soil, local variations in which affect its taste. Hence, speciality chocolates, such as North Queensland’s ‘Daintree Estates’, organically grown from one specific area, develop. The industry is slowly growing in Australia, with recent news (2014) of new cocoa farms being planted at Innisfail, south of Cairns.
Tiny white or pink flowers grow on the trunks and branches of cocoa trees. They can be manipulated to produce several crops of fruit each year by planned fertilizing and watering.
These flowers develop into football shaped fruit with an orange, leathery skin, inside which rows of flesh-covered seeds grow. These seeds are the ‘cacao beans’ from which cacao nibs, then cocoa butter, cocoa powder and chocolate are made.
What are dark chocolate ingredients and how is it different to regular milk chocolate?
The mature cacao pods are harvested from the cocoa tree after which the ‘beans’ and their enclosing white flesh are scraped out.
The seeds are then fermented, traditionally, in piles or vats to remove the pulp and encourage flavor to develop in the beans.
The beans (seeds) are then dried, either in the sun or with hot air dryers, and cleaned to remove any loose residue, after which they may be shelled and broken into cocoa ‘nibs’, if the cacao is to be used raw.
If not, beans are then roasted at quite high temperatures for varying lengths of time, depending on the desired flavor and cold pressed under huge pressure to make a liquor, which is set in molds ready for the next stage.
To extract cocoa butter, a rich and prized, yellowish coloured saturated fat, crucial to the making of high quality chocolate, pressure is again applied to the solidified cocoa liquor. Residual solids from this process are then ground into cocoa powder.
The powder is then mixed with cocoa butter and sugar (‘conching’) to emulsify it then ‘tempered’ in a highly skilled process to solidify it again…and so, the glossy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate as we know it, is born! Sounds easy?
Recent research encourages us to give in to those desires – as long as we choose high quality, dark chocolate. For those who are keen to not put on weight, keep in mind that no chocolate, whatever its benefits, is low in calories! Just enjoy one or two small squares each day (can you stop at that?).
Caution: buy the best quality that you can and avoid those chocolates with added dairy, oils and trans fats. Straight cacao tends to be rather bitter so, if you don’t like that, choose chocolates, which contain the lowest percentage of sugar.
Some people find that chocolate can trigger migraine headaches. I am one of those who needs to exercise restraint but I find that a tiny square each day has no unpleasant consequences.
What are some nutrition facts and benefits of dark chocolate?
It improves blood flow to your brain and heart and can help to lower your blood pressure. Blood clots more slowly, it helps to prevent strokes, arteriosclerosis, reduces risks of heart attacks and improves cognitive function.
Dark chocolate in moderation is anti inflammatory; the fibre in chocolate is fermented by gut bacteria. Hence, in addition to increasing blood flow it reduces inflamed cardiovascular tissue, if such exists.
It seems that the tale about chocolate improving mood is true; it contains phenylethylamine which releases endorphins, the ‘happy hormones’.
Fats in high quality chocolates are mostly saturated. If derived from cocoa butter, they are in the form of stearic acid, monounsaturated + palmitic fatty acid, all beneficial to health.
Dark chocolate contains soluble fiber and is loaded with minerals such as, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese potassium, zinc and selenium.
Antioxidants: chocolate is amongst the best sources of antioxidants, including polyphenols, flavanols and catechins to help protect against against diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Flavonols help your arteries to relax but then its small amounts of caffeine and theobromine, mild stimulants, will keep you alert (while you are relaxed!).
Enjoy the great benefits of dark chocolate - here's to your continued good health!