Cocoa is a unique bean packed with fiber and antioxidants. However, it gets a bad rap because its final forms are often highly processed and filled with refined sugars and fats. But there are healthy ways to incorporate this tasty treat into a healthy diet.
Cocoa trees thrive in tropical regions with a hot, humid climate. The trees produce pods that farmers harvest, cutting off the thick outer shell with a machete, and revealing 20 to 30 cocoa beans per pod. The beans are sent through a fermentation process, dried, cleaned, packaged and shipped to processors. To the consumer, cocoa can arrive in the form of the whole beans, powder, butter, liqueur or processed chocolate candies.
Cocoa is packed with powerful antioxidants, namely polyphenols and flavanols. These antioxidants help to reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar and improve cholesterol. The flavanols in cocoa can also improve levels of nitric oxide, a potent molecule that helps to lower blood pressure. The antioxidant content of cocoa has also been linked to improved brain health into old age and cancer-protective effects. Additionally, chocolate has been found to reduce stress and improve mood. This could be due to the presence of the natural mood stabilizers serotonin and tryptophan, low levels of caffeine, or the stimulation of reward pathways when chocolate is consumed.
Like other high antioxidant foods, many of the nutrients and antioxidants can be damaged when processed at high temperatures. Therefore, it's difficult to know the antioxidant and nutrient contents of processed chocolate products. Additionally, these processed chocolates often come packed with refined sugars and fats, and a low cocoa content.
WHERE TO USE IT
The best way to ensure you get the most out of your chocolate is to make the goodies yourself. A high quality tin of pure cocoa powder can go a long way to make a wide array of chocolatey treats. Most simply, make a healthy cup of hot cocoa by whisking a heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder into a cup of boiling water, then add a wholesome sweetener of choice (like honey!). You can make a richer cup of cocoa by using milk instead of water. You can also make a quick and wholesome chocolate lava treat by baking oat flour, sweetener, baking powder, flax meal, milk and cocoa powder in a ramekin (for one) or a small casserole pan (for many!). Alternatively, if you like a quick snack with less prep, choosing dark chocolates is the best way to get the benefits of cocoa from store-bought chocolates.
Stacey Aggarwal received a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Washington. Now she writes about biology, health and nutrition while running a lavender farm in North Idaho.