Chocolate – A Luxurious Super Food
Chocolate has a venerated place in the Paleo Diet. Good quality dark chocolate is a great souce of healthy fats. It’s so rich in antioxidants that it can be considered a super-food. And studies consistently reveal a host of health benefits. Of course, it’s also delicious.
Chocolate, apparently, contains one of the chemicals which stimulates the feeling of euphoria – but that’s not why we love it. Rather, it’s the high quantity of antioxidants and healthy fats which have us eating a square or two every day.
- Healthy Fats. Cocoa butter is mostly monounsaturated and saturated fat, both of which are excellent sources of energy. Saturated fat, in particular, is very stable when exposed to air, heat and light.
- Antioxidents. Cacao contains higher levels of flavonols than acai, pomegranate, cranberry and blueberry, making it a super-food. Flavonols are polyphenols. Polyphenols are phytonutrients that reduce oxidative and toxic stress, and inflammation.
- Prebiotics & Fibre. Chocolate contains prebiotics which are precursors for healthy gut bacteria, and fibre which is good for the movement of matter through the gut.
- Caffeine. Cacao contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which are stimulants for the nervous system. There are about 30 milligrams of caffeine in 30 grams of unsweetened chocolate, and 20 milligrams in 1 tablespoon of cocoa. (An espresso coffee has between 60-100 mg).
Dark, Bitter and Super Healthy. Cocoa beans, from which chocolate is derived, are naturally bitter and astringent. The more cocoa solids in the chocolate, the more bitter and astringent it will be – and the more antioxidants it will contain.
White Chocolate Doesn’t Count. White chocolate contains cocoa fat, but contains very low levels of polyphenols. Any white chocolate that you’ll find on the market will be packed with sugar. It isn’t considered a health food.
HOW TO EAT DARK CHOCOLATE
If you’ve only ever eaten sweet mik chocolate, the dark and bitter bars may be difficult to appreciate. Follow the same rule as when you’re training yourself to enjoy coffee without sugar: be patient, but persistent. Put a piece in your mouth and let it dissolve slowly on your tongue. Notice the textures and flavour. It won’t take long for your tastebuds to adapt – and when you reach that place of pure appreciation, there’s no looking back. A square of dark chocolate is decadent and luxurious. And because it’s so healthy, you can regard it as a natural nutritional supplement, to be taken in small doses, a little every day.
Health Benefits of Eating Chocolate
Eating dark chocolate has shown to have beneficial effects on
- Blood Pressure
- LDL Cholesterol
- HDL Cholestero
- Endothelial Cells (which line blood vessels and lymphatic vessels)
- Plasma Levels of Flavanols
- Nitric Oxide Production (which increasies vasodilation and improves endothelial function)
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Fatty Liver and Liver Health in general
- Beta Cell Function
- Insulin Sensitivity
- UV damage
- Blood flow, Arterial Stiffness
- Cognitive Function
- Risk for Type 2 Diabetes
A TINY HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE
The cocoa plant is native to Central America. Pre-colonial civilizations didn’t eat it, but rather used it for making beverages which were consumed during refined occasions: royal celebrations and religious rites. The Maya flavoured their cocoa with chilli and vanilla and drank it hot. The Aztecs infused it with flowers, sweetened it with honey and drank it cold.
When chocolate arrived in Europe in the mid 16th century, it was considered a medicinal beverage or was used to disguise a poison. But by the late 17th century it found it’s way into the kitchen and was added to savoury and sweet dishes.
HOW CHOCOLATE IS MADE
Cocoa beans only become palatable only when fermented, roasted and ground. Cacao beans are removed from their pod and then left to ferment for about a week. After fermentation they’re dried, roasted, and hulled to form nibs. The nibs are ground into a paste called cocoa liquor or chocolate liquor.
Chocolate liquor consists of half cocoa butter and half cocoa solids. When hard, it becomes unsweetened cooking chocolate.
The chocolate liquor may be pressed, separating the cocoa butter from the solids. When cocoa solids are crushed and sieved they become cocoa powder.
Cocoa butter may be added to unsweetened cooking chocolate to improve it’s melting qualities. Because cocoa butter is quite expensive, often cheaper emulsifiers, such as soy lecithin, are used. Emulsifiers glue together molecules which usually don’t bind, such as oil and water.
Sugar, vanilla, milk products and other ingredients contribute to the particular character, quality and consistency of the finished chocolate product.
Further refinement is required to break down the particles. The chocolate is kneaded or ‘conched’ at high temperatures until it’s smooth and delicious. The longer it’s conched, the smoother the chocolate. A ‘gritty’ chocolate means it hasn’t been conched for long.
After conching the chocolate is ‘tempered’. The temperature is slowly lowered, and the result is a chocolate that is glossy when hard and snaps when broken. After all this, good quality chocolate is then aged for 60-90 days.
Each step of refinement reduces the flavanol content of the chocolate. This means that the rawer the chocolate, the higher the flavanol content. But almost every finished chocolate bar undergoes fermentation, roasting and conching. Even ‘raw’ chocolate probably isn’t ‘raw’, and possibly isn’t optimal as fermentation and roasting reduce the phytic acid content.
THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF CHOCOLATE
Raw cocoa powder comes from dried, fermented, unroasted beans. Some residual fat remains.
Roasted cocoa powder comes from dried, fermented, roasted beans. Roasting extracts more cocoa butter, so there’s a lower fat content.
Chocolate Nibs are hard and unsweetened. You can eat them whole or add them to smoothies.
CHOCOLATE LIQUOR OR CHOCOLATE MASS
Chocolate liquor, or chocolate mass, is ground up cocoa nibs in solid or semi-solid form. It consists of about equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter. It can be eaten as is, or used as a base for your own chocolate.
Chocolate Bars are the finished product. The percentage of cocoa in a bar (100%, 85%, 70% etc) indicates the amount of cocoa mass and butter.
COOKING WITH CHOCOLATE
Cacao powder is a starch.
When used for baking, cacao powder should be sifted with the other dry ingredients.
When used for making a sauce, puddings or drinks, the cacao should be first mixed to a smooth paste with a little liquid until no lumps remain. Then, slowly adding more liquid and stirring continuously, it should be heated to boiling in order to cook the starch and improve it’s digestibility.
HOW TO MELT CHOCOLATE
Melt chocolate slowly as high heat will burn the chocolate. Put 1 centimetre of water into a small saucepan and place a ceramic or metal bowl over the saucepan. Break the chocolate into the bowl. Bring the water to a slow simmer, making sure no moisture enters the bowl. Wait a few minutes for the chocolate to melt.
HOW TO BUY CHOCOLATE
When it comes to choosing your chocolate, buy the best quality you can, but there’s no need to be obsessive. All the studies which indicate health benefits aren’t using raw, unfermented cocoa beans, but rather commercially available cocoa products which have undergone processing.
BUY DARK CHOCOLATE
Look for dark chocolate with 85% minimum cacao. The sugar content will be very low, and there will either be no soy lecithin, or not enough to count. With 85% or higher, you’ll be receiving fibre, healthy fats, prebiotics and a a good dose of those precious cocoa flavanols.
When reading the ingredient list, the first on the list should be cocoa: bean, mass, liquor or powder. If milk or sugar is listed before cocoa, it’s not high quality chocolate. Leave it, don’t waste your cash.
As noted above, white chocolate doesn’t count. It isn’t a health food.
Avoid Dutch process cocoa. The Dutch process alkalizes the cocoa. This reduces the bitterness, but also the flavanols. Dutch process cocoa will have some residual sodium in the nutritional facts. It’ll be darker and have a richer chocolate flavour. Un-Dutched cocoa is lighter and fruitier in flavour.
Buy Fair Trade whenever you can. Fair Trade helps ensure that the people who grow, harvest and produce the chocolate are adults receiving a decent wage.
Don’t go overboard with your dark chocolate consumption. Treat it as a sumptuous addition to your diet, a luxurious ingredient with medicinal qualities. Consume it regularly, but in small doses.
DOGS can’t process the bitter alkaloid theobromine in dark chocolate. Don’t give chocolate to dogs. It’s toxic to them.
The information in this post comes from the following sources:
- Stephanie Alexander, “The Cook’s Companion”
- Jennifer McLagan, “Bitter”
- Mark Sisson, “The Definitive Guide to Chocolate”
Homemade Baci, Choc Hazelnut Kisses – just 4 ingredients, seriously easy, amazingly good!
Gorgeous Paleo Chocolate Treats
Chestnut, Choc Chunk and Hazelnut Cookies – If you don’t have chestnut flour, just sub with cassava flour. These are our favourites!
Chocolate, Almond and Hazelnut Torte – This is what I take to dinner parties for dessert.
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