The Healthy Side of Chocolate

Whether you see February as the month of love, loneliness, or a time of being just plain fed up with winter, there is one thing that we all turn to during these 29 days: chocolate.

Throughout the year we are generally quite good at consuming what can be seen as one of the world’s tastiest foods. Come February, however, we lean on it a bit more to get us through the month – or to celebrate the month for those in the love group.

While turning chocolate into a core food group is not the healthiest of ideas, eating it in moderation – and in its pure cacao form – can be a good thing.

In fact, cacao has been used medicinally for centuries. The earliest recorded evidence for its use can be found in Mesoamerican civilizations. Iconographic works and pieces of pottery suggest that it was in use as early as 600 BC.

The raw cacao seeds, before they are processed into chocolate treats, are rich in a group of antioxidants known as flavonoids, specifically catechin and epicatechin. It is these flavonoids that are responsible for cacao’s many health benefits.

In studies, flavonoids have been shown to boost memory and learning. One group of Italian researchers found evidence that regular consumption over eight weeks could even improve cognitive function in the elderly. Other studies focused on a younger generation found that high-flavanol cocoa consumption enhanced cognitive performance. It would seem that cacao-powered cognitive gains are a great benefit for all ages.

Another key area of focus for those linking chocolate with medicinal benefits, is heart health. Researchers have been finding that cocoa consumption can have positive effects on the cardiovascular system. Studies on the subject have found that cocoa can help lower blood pressure, restore arterial flexibility, and may even reduce the risk of stroke.

Before you rush out and clear the shelves of your favourite chocolate-y treats, it’s important to differentiate between the types of chocolate available. Chocolate candy bars stocked in grocery stores and pharmacies don’t qualify for the healthy type. In their sweetened form that we are most familiar with, the raw cacao seed has been processed to the point of no nutritional return. Add in the fat, sugar, and other additives and consumption can do more harm than good.

Raw cacao with minimal processing is the way you want to enjoy this delicious food. Not only is it a more pure shot of tasty chocolate goodness, but it’s also full of flavonoids. It can be bitter on its own, but with the right preparation and by adding your own natural sweeteners you can have the stuff that chocolate dreams are made of.

Raw cacao can be purchased in both a powder and nib variety. The nibs are small chunks of the cacao bean. Adding a spoonful or two to smoothies and frozen banana ice cream is a great way to add a fudgy punch to your day. It’s also a great addition to raw truffles made from nuts and dates.

Skillet brown butter chocolate chunk cookie

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