We'll all cherish the day we learned chocolate was good for us. Maybe a few naysayers still remain skeptical, but study after study is proclaiming the health benefits, both mental and physical, of chocolate. Even the Life Extension Foundation includes chocolate extract in their flagship vitamin formulas. Many folks are switching from their daily dose of coffee to a cup of hot chocolate. It's an antidepressant, an antioxidant, its full of vitamins and minerals, it improves sex drive, AND it tastes good. Really good. So what is the best way to get the health benefits? Is it as simple as eating cases of your childhood favorite chocolates? As you might have thought, there are considerations when indulging in chocolate as a regular part of your diet. But it can be done! Let's see how...
It happens that the somewhat controversial 'raw foodists' are right on the mark with this one: it's raw, unroasted, unprocessed chocolate that's the real health food. Really, it's not even called chocolate, but Cacao -- chocolate is the name for the roasted, fat and sugar added product that Willy Wonka makes. (But for the fun of it, we'll keep calling it chocolate. In the long run, it's cool to think you've added 'eating chocolate' to the list of things you do daily that are good for you.) One needs to be careful, too, as raw chocolate is relatively hard to come by. Pricey organic hot cocoa is still roasted and alkalized, changing chocolate's chemistry significantly enough to warrant limiting its intake. You can get raw chocolate online, and it's slowly finding its way onto store shelves. Make sure it says 'raw' or 'cacao', and not 'cocoa', and should have no other ingredients (though some actual raw chocolate 'candy' can be found in very hip health food stores). Got it? If you still need a little convincing, here's a quick look at the difference between raw and processed chocolates to help you make the switch -- then on to a few recipes.
First the question of Caffeine. Many folks are sensitive to caffeine's effect on their nervous system. It raises blood pressure, shortens tempers and keeps people awake. And we all know chocolate has caffeine in it, right? But what form is it in? Research done by homeopaths indicates a significant difference on the stimulating effects of chocolate depending on whether it's been heated or not. A drink made with roasted chocolate evoked excitement of the nervous system that did not occur with unroasted chocolate. Alteration of chemical structure through heat is common, and very likely to occur in the case of chocolate. The roasting process involves heating the beans between two hundred fifty and three hundred fifty degrees Fahrenheit for thirty minutes to two hours. Anecdotal reports of individuals moving from coffee or yerba mate as their morning drink to a cup of hot chocolate report gentle stimulating effects without anxiety, as their other drinks had produced. Even very sensitive people who do not do well with any form of caffeine report positive results with raw chocolate; nothing at all like the effects produced by coffee or caffeinated teas.
Next the question of anti-oxidants. Chocolate has been discovered to have exceptionally high quantities of important polyphenols. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry was titled: "Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals and Higher Antioxidant Capacity than Teas and Red Wine." It's hard to argue with that. Here again the question of raw arises: One report notes that while roasted chocolate is made up of five-percent antioxidants, raw chocolate contains twice as much at ten percent. Another important note is the addition of milk to make milk chocolate. Research has shown that the addition of milk actually cancels-out the positive effects of chocolate's antioxidants. And milk may be one of the reasons many people seem to be allergic to chocolate, as lactose intolerance is fairly common. Another chocolate myth is some individuals break out when ingesting high amounts; reports indicate that raw chocolate does not cause this response, and that it may be the refined fats and sugars present in most chocolate products producing this effect.
Finally, the question of mood-enhancing neurochemicals and precursors. Chocolate contains significant quantities of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan intake has recently been collated with neurogenesis, the development of new brain cells, and both long and short term memory. The presence of tryptophan is critical for the production of serotonin, a primary neurotransmitter associated with mood (Prozac works on the principal of enhancing the action of serotonin). Once in the body tryptophan reacts with B-vitamins in the presence of magnesium (all present in raw chocolate) to produce serotonin. Enhanced serotonin function assists in diminishing anxiety and stress - ccording to Dr. Gabriel Cousens, serotonin is literally our “stress-defense shield.” Tryptophan is heat sensitive and is often deficient in many cooked-food diets, even when animal protein intake is high. In addition to tryptophan (but not heat sensitive) chocolate also contains PEA, the 'love hormone' and Anandamide the 'bliss chemical'.
Convinced? Ready for a little raw chocolate power? First its critical to find a good source; make sure the chocolate you're buying is raw - it's most often labeled as 'Cacao', the name for the raw chocolate beans and the tree on which they grow. Cacao nibs are small pieces of pure raw chocolate that can be eaten straight, or mixed with other healthy snacks like Gogi berries. But the best-loved raw chocolate preparation is the original chocolate drink: hot chocolate. Now it won't be hot enough for long enough to convert any chemicals or to cook the chocolate, just to make it a warm comforting drink - and of course, heating the water isn't necessary at all (though in recipes calling for Coconut oil, it helps to blend the oil into the drink). So to make a cup, use powdered raw chocolate (grinding the nibs or beans in a coffee grinder can work, though you'll find this challenging as the natural oils in the chocolate will heat up and liquefy before the grinding is complete, leaving little crunchy bits). Put one or two tablespoons powdered chocolate, one to two teaspoons raw dark agave nectar (a low-glycemic index natural sweetner) and one to two teaspoons of Coconut oil in a blender. Add eight to twelve ounces almost-boiling water and blend for ten seconds. That's it! You'll find your personal favorite formula after a few preparations - more or less chocolate, oil, sweetener or water.
There are many, many recipes available online and in books about raw chocolate. Some favorite additions to the drink are Maca (Peruvian Ginseng), essential oils like Vanilla, Peppermint or Orange (just one drop is often enough) or a little powdered cinnamon. Your own raw chocolate bars are very easy to make, really just by omitting the water and adjusting the oil and sweetener ratios to make a thick chocolate paste. Add some chopped nuts if you like, press into a casserole dish and put it in the refrigerator long enough to make it firm. Experiment; it's chocolate! You're supposed to have fun. And with raw chocolate, it might be the most fun you can have eating while positively benefiting your health.
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The author is a chocoholic, and co-founder of Ananda Aromatherapy. More information on pure and organic essential oils can be found at The Ananda Apothecary, at www.anandaapothecary.com.
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