Chocolate’s Hidden Bounty

Amy Gardner
November 9, 2014

Is chocolate your friend or foe?  People often describe themselves as being “addicted to chocolate”.  Of all foods, chocolate is likely the most commonly craved, particularly for women.  The winter months seem to heighten these cravings.  Many people also express guilt over eating chocolate, assuming it has a negative impact on health.

You may be surprised to learn, chocolate actually has significant health benefits.  Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, originating from South America.  Mayans historically used it for medicinal purposes.  It’s ironic that something we often assume to be a an indulgence actually has more antioxidant power than most “super fruits” (acai, pomegranate,goji berries, etc).

Cocoa improves mood.  It’s rich in agents that enhance the production of various feel-good chemicals in the brain, notably serotonin and dopamine. This means that cocoa possesses anti-depressant, mood-elevating properties.

It also contains theobromine and a small amount of caffeine which have a mild stimulant effect.  The combination of these chemicals provides the perfect neurological cocktail.  It’s no surprise that some people use chocolate to self- medicate.  And…ahem, no surprise that my children’s chocolate has quickly disappeared from their Halloween stash (to no fault of their own). It makes sense that cravings seem to increase in the winter months when depressive symptoms are on the rise.

Cocoa is also great for your heart.  The polyphenols in cocoa are cardio-protective in two ways.  They help to reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad cholesterol”.  Oxidation of LDL is considered a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease, most notably heart attack and stroke.  Additionally, polyphenols inhibit blood platelets from clumping together.

Cocoa is a great source of magnesium and zinc.  Magnesium is an important and often over-looked mineral.  It’s critical for activating muscles and nerves, creating energy in the body, helping with digestion and producing serotonin and other neurotransmitters involved in mood.  Magnesium is also critical for the heart which holds the largest amount of magnesium in the body.  Zinc also plays a role in in neurotransmitter function.  It is also critical for growth and plays a role in immune function, smell and taste perception.

So, you can feel great about eating chocolate and serving up the hot cocoa to your kiddos this winter, right?  Yes, but.  Cocoa clearly has some impressive health benefits.  Though, as with most things, when processed and mixed with other ingredients, the nutritional value diminishes.  The chocolate in a Milky Way is off-set by its high sugar & fat content and artificial ingredients to give it a longer shelf life.
Alternately, pure cacao bars and powder have 0g of fat,, 0g of sugar and 2g of fiber per tablespoon along with the previously mentioned nutrients.  It is the best way to fully obtain cocoa’s nutritional bounty.  Consider using it as a base for hot chocolate or mixing it into your favorite recipe.  Chili and mole sauces are great ways to add some cocoa into your food in a flavorful way.  When searching for a chocolate bar, look for one that has no more than 2-3 ingredients, at least 65% cacao and < 5g of sugar.
Here’s a homemade hot cocoa recipe that’s kid-approved:

Homemade Cocoa

For every serving use:
1 cup or mug of milk (1%, almond, soy)
1 to 2 teaspoons of Cacao
2 teaspoons water
2-3 teaspoons of sugar, agave or honey*
Gently heat the water, sugar, cocoa and vanilla over medium heat, stirring until dissolved.  Add milk, lower heat and stir.  Heat until desired temperature is reached.
Your hot cocoa can be spiced up by adding any of the following during the heating phase:
Cinnamon stick, Orange or Lime Zest, Chile Powder, Nutmeg, Vanilla.

*You can start with less and add to taste – this way you can minimize the sugar content, unlike with commercial mixes.