Why chocolate is good for you (for real!)

 Image: Charisse Kenion via Unsplash

Image: Charisse Kenion via Unsplash

Valentine’s Day is almost here!

Regardless of your reaction to that fact (eye roll? butterflies? nausea?), one thing we all have in common is the amount of chocolate heading our way next week.

Whether you’re a fiend for the dark gold, or a mere dabbler, I’ve got some good news for you - chocolate isn’t necessary bad for you.

I’ve also got some great news for: in the right form, chocolate can actually be quite good for you.

(Please hold your rejoicing until the end of the article.)

Chocolate 101

Let’s start with some basics - you’ve probably heard of and seen all different kinds of chocolate. You have your dark chocolate, your white chocolate, your cacao nibs, your milk chocolate, your cocoa powder… while they all have a little bit of a flavour connection, the composition of chocolate varies widely, as does its quality.

Let me break it down for you:

Cacao pod

The origins of all chocolate! These large pods contain the cacao seeds that eventually become your V-day treats.

Cacao seeds

These are first cold-pressed to remove the fat, and ground into a powder which becomes…

Cacao

A fine, raw powder made from the cacao seed.

Cacao butter

The fat extracted when pressing the cacao seed.

Cacao nibs

Dried chunks of cacao seed.

Cocoa

When cacao seeds are roasted at high temperatures to make a powder, it’s called cocoa. This is where things get confusing, as cocoa and raw cacao powder look nearly identical, but have distinct health benefits (see below).

Dark chocolate

Chocolate that’s at least 50% comprised of cacao or cocoa (the other 50% is usually, ideally, just sugar with no additives).

White chocolate

Chocolate that’s made from cacao butter & sugar.

Milk chocolate

Chocolate that’s made from parts of the cacao seed, sugar, and milk solids (for a creamier finish)

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Now that you’re a chocolate expert, let’s circle back to that promise of healthy consumption.

The truth is that, yes, some chocolates can be good for you. But here’s the first distinction to pay attention to: you want to ensure you’re eating chocolate with cacao, as opposed to cocoa. Cocoa has been made at a high temperature, which changes the molecular structure of the cacao seed and lessens its healthiness.

Cacao, in its raw, organic form, however, boasts the following health benefits:

  1. It has 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries.

  2. It is the highest plant-based source of iron.

  3. It has a high level of magnesium, which is good for heart & brain health.

  4. It contains more calcium by volume than cow’s milk.

  5. It’s a known antidepressant, thanks largely to the amount of magnesium it contains.

How to eat chocolate like a (healthy) pro

Armed with all this insight into the cacao plant and its derivatives, let’s talk about how to eat chocolate the healthy way.

  1. Buy high-quality
    I’m so, so sorry to tell you this, but the chocolate bars available at the checkout counter of your grocery store (unless it’s a health-conscious grocery store) probably aren’t going to make the cut. Plus they’re usually full of additives like soy and other chemicals you can’t pronounce. Even when “indulging”, I’d recommend staying away from cheap chocolate.

  2. Go dark
    All chocolate bars contain some sugar, so just be aware of what you’re buying and don’t try to fool yourself. If you’re craving a good piece (ahem, bar) of chocolate, opt for a percentage of 70% or more, ensure the bar is made with raw cacao powder, and try to find one finished with cane sugar, as opposed to a more processed sugar.

  3. Buy raw cacao and bake for yourself
    Most health food stores will carry raw cacao powder in the bulk section, or with the other baking supplies. Pick some up and use it interchangeably with cocoa powder in your baking. Double down on the healthiness by using recipes that call for honey or maple syrup instead of refined sugar!

  4. Make your own delicious hot cacao
    Hot chocolate fan? Don’t deprive yourself - mix your raw cacao powder with some steamed milk and honey in a blender, add a dash of cinnamon, and you’ll be sipping a sweet treat in no time.

  5. Don’t sweat it - in moderation
    Sometimes, especially on special occasions, it’s okay to let go of the need to be super healthy, and just be super grateful you get to eat sweet, creamy, delicious chocolate. I’m a strong proponent of the 80/20 rule - eat well 80% of the time. Pay attention to what’s in your food. Get the amazing health benefits of cacao in one of the ways listed above.

    The other 20% of the time, relax and enjoy the sweet things life has to offer.

Steph Bowen