Healthy Days and Nourishing Ways

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What’s so good about chocolate? Just about everything! It tastes great, it’s versatile, and it’s good for us! Chocolate, which is made from the cacao beans of the Theobroma Cacao tree, has been used as both food and medicine for centuries. Cacao beans are chock full of flavonoids, phytochemicals that act as powerful antioxidants. Flavonoids, which in chocolate are in the form of flavanols, may help prevent cancer and heart disease as well as slow down the aging process. Chocolate is also a good source of the minerals magnesium and copper. Magnesium is important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth, keeping the nervous system functioning properly, and producing insulin. Copper helps our bodies absorb iron, helps bones develop, helps metabolize ascorbic acid, and helps keep the immune system healthy.

Chocolate is made by roasting the cacao beans and removing the shells, leaving the inner nibs which are then crushed to form a thick paste. This paste, which is usually referred to as cocoa solids or chocolate liquor (although it contains no alcohol), is then pressed and separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is often sold to cosmetics manufacturers. Cocoa powder is either treated with an alkali to neutralize acidity (referred to as Dutch processed) or is sold as unsweetened cocoa powder (the product with the highest amount of cocoa solids—88 to 96%—and therefore the highest amount of antioxidants).

High quality chocolate products are made from chocolate liquor (cocoa solids) and cocoa butter. Other ingredients such as sugar and vanilla are added. Dark chocolate will usually contain 45 to 80% cocoa solids, making it the second healthiest chocolate product behind unsweetened cocoa powder. Dark chocolate is a healthier choice over milk chocolate since it not only has more cocoa solids (milk chocolate lags far behind with a typical 5 to 7%), but it has less sugar. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids but usually some cocoa butter, and therefore does not contain the antioxidants and nutrients that other chocolate products do. Low quality chocolate products contain vegetable fats (such as cottonseed and soy oil) in place of the original cocoa butter.

What else is good about chocolate? Let’s take a look.

·         Flavanols, which have anti-inflammatory compounds, have also been linked to the following: lowered blood pressure, lowered “bad” cholesterol, lowered risk for diabetes, improved blood flow, providing some UV protection from the sun, and helping to stop coughs.
·         Consuming chocolate stimulates the production of serotonin and endorphins. Serotonin helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. Endorphins help give us a feeling of well-being and provide some relief from pain.
·         Good quality chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is a good source of oleic and stearic acids. Oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, is the healthy fat found in extra virgin olive oil. Stearic acid, a saturated fat, protects the body from the oxidation of cholesterol and relaxes the blood vessels.
·         Chocolate contains important minerals like magnesium, copper, potassium, and iron.
·         Chocolate makes a great gift!