Is chocolate really bad for you?
Mmm chocolate – that creamy, sweet, delicious treat that we all can't get enough of. If you've got even a bit of a sweet tooth, the chances are that the craving for chocolate strikes you at least once every few days; for some of us, it's more often. They say women crave chocolate at their time of the month (when in actual fact it can be the magnesium found in chocolate that the body needs to stave off symptoms of PMS, and whole grains and leafy greens are actually a better source of magnesium!) Whether you give into occasional chocolate cravings or avoid the stuff in favour of healthier options, we wondered, is chocolate really all that bad for you?
What is chocolate?
It might seem like a strange question, but in order to determine how bad chocolate is for you, we need to know what's in it! Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, or cacao beans, which are the fatty seeds of the cacao tree. Although it originated in south America, today most cacao trees grow in West Africa, and 70% of cacao comes from here. Cocoa has always been highly valued – legend tells that Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor, would only drink chocolate from a golden goblet at every meal. It wasn't until the mid 1600s that chocolate arrived in Europe, brought by the Spanish – it quickly became a popular beverage and treat, attracting high prices. Today, more than 3 million tonnes of cocoa are produced every year.
How are cocoa beans harvested?
Harvesting of cocoa beans to make chocolate and other products happens three to four times a week during harvest season, with up to 650 pods a day harvested by one worker. The pods are opened with a machete (1) and the cocoa seeds and pulp are removed. They're then piled onto grates, where the pulp ferments in the sun and drains away, leaving the seeds. This 'sweating' process is vital for the quality of the cocoa beans. An average pod contains around 20 to 50 beans, but did you know that 400 beans are needed to make just one pound of chocolate?
When the cocoa beans arrive at factories, they are roasted, cracked and de-shelled. These small pieces of the beans are called 'cacao nibs' – they're super-healthy, packed with antioxidants and can be found in health food stores. Most of the nibs are then ground into cocoa paste, which is mixed with sugar and cocoa butter; sugar and lecithin (which emulsifies the mixture) are usually added.
What's the difference between cocoa and cacao?
There's more than just a spelling difference, that's for sure! You'll see raw cacao powder and cacao nibs referred to in many healthy recipes. Delicious Ella's food blog is packed with recipes which contain cacao. Cacao is the cold-pressed, unroasted cocoa bean. The cold-pressing process removes the cocoa butter and keeps the bean's living enzymes alive, preserving the nutrients. Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures, effectively lowering the nutritional value, in the same way that cooking vegetables kills off some of the vitamins and nutrients.
Raw cacao – a nutrient powerhouse
Those looking to maintain and boost their health should turn to raw cacao. When we say 'chocolate is unhealthy', we're mostly referring to the fat and sugar content. Raw cacao powder or cacao nibs have a whole host of health benefits. They can:
- Shield your nerve cells from damage
- Reduce your risk of heart disease
- Protect your nervous system – they're high in the antioxidant resveratrol
- Reduce blood pressure and risk of stroke
- Lower insulin resistance
- Boost your mood naturally, as they contain phenylethylamine, the chemical released by the brain when you're in love
Raw cacao is also packed with iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, calcium, manganese and copper. We reckon you'll agree this makes raw cacao a far healthier choice than a Cadbury's Dairy Milk! Research has shown that dairy products (used in milk chocolate) can actually inhibit the absorption of the antioxidants found in cacao (2).
Chocolate myths – busted
There are a number of myths surrounding chocolate that we'd like to bust right now. Heard any of these lately?
- Chocolate gives you acne
- Chocolate raises your cholesterol
- Chocolate is addictive
Let's start at the beginning. Chocolate won't give you spots, no matter what people say. If you do notice you get spotty after eating chocolate, it could be that you're sensitive to dairy; keeping a food diary can help to monitor your symptoms. Chocolate doesn't raise your cholesterol either, and it's not addictive – many processed foods such as crisps and other snacks do contain additives such as MSG, which can be addictive.
So what's the verdict, is chocolate really bad for you?
We know that dark chocolate is a healthier choice than milk chocolate, and that a few squares of dark chocolate or some raw cacao nibs have numerous benefits for your health. Prolonged intake can improve your cardiovascular health, yet the flavanoids found in cacao are degraded by cooking. Adding milk and cocoa butter to the cacao increases the level of fat whilst reducing the cocoa content.
Enjoyed in moderation, we say chocolate is not that bad for you – like anything, a little of what you fancy is okay. The smell of chocolate can help to improve relaxation (3), whilst levels of antioxidants in the blood increase after chocolate consumption. Cacao in its purest form can even help to fight tooth decay, thanks to the antibacterial agents it contains.
However, milk chocolate is high in sugar, calories and saturated fat. It has been linked to headaches for migraine sufferers, and if you eat too much, it can cause weight gain. The best way to enjoy chocolate is in as pure and unprocessed a form as possible, such as raw cacao powder, cacao nibs, organic cocoa or dark chocolate. All these products have an intense, rich chocolatey flavour that will satisfy your craving for something sweet far more quickly than a processed milk chocolate bar. Cooking with dark chocolate or cacao can also help banish sweet cravings – use dates for natural sweetness and create some of our energy bite recipes, they're delicious! If you're feeling guilty about eating too much chocolate this December (let's face it, we all will!), why not try one of our Christmas Advent Calendar Workouts?
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