You may have heard that there are many health benefits associated with chocolate, but nevertheless feel guilty every time you indulge!
Obviously, gleaning the health benefits related to chocolate will not be as simple as consuming a chocolate candy bar from the corner store. In fact, doing so could offer you no health benefits whatsoever!
The origins of chocolate are indeed medicinal. The Mayan, Aztec and Olmec peoples considered chocolate sacred. They swore by chocolate’s healing properties, and called it the “food of the gods.” So precious was chocolate, these ancient people even used it as currency.
During the early 1500s, Aztec Emperor Montezuma II claimed “The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink (cacao) permits a man to walk a whole day without food.”
The Spanish brought chocolate from the New World back to Europe in 1544
Their initial intention was for chocolate to be given medicinally. Chocolate was claimed to cure illnesses such as fever, fatigue, digestion, weight gain, libido, tuberculosis, and gout, amongst others. However, it is only recently that scientists have sought to see what medicinal properties chocolate really does have.
Off the coast of Panama, the indigenous Kuna people living on the islands still use chocolate medicinally. A 1997 Harvard study compared the Kuna to their peers on the mainland. Surprisingly, the research revealed that the health of the islanders was superior, despite lower living standards! The Kuna lived longer, had lower blood pressure and experienced reduced rates of cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart attack. Their secret? The Kuna people drink over 5 cups of a chocolate beverage per day.
Modern science investigates the health claims of chocolate
Other studies have shown that chocolate improves heart and blood vessel health. When scientists examined the chemical make up of chocolate, they discovered that it contained flavanols. As well as having benefits for heart health, a 2014 Italian study about flavanols in chocolate showed that they also improve cognitive function in aging test subjects.
However, there is a caveat to the above studies. None of the chocolate used in the above research was the same as your typical candy bar that you can pick up at the store.
The Kuna people process their organic cacao beans using traditional and non-industrialized methods. Similarly, the scientists in the lab created a specialized chocolate, specific to the clinical trials. In other words, it is not so simple to gain access to the chocolate used to extract superior health benefits. However, it is not impossible.
There has been a recent trend with many health food aficionados to consume raw cacao beans. The assumption being that the more organic and close to the source the cocoa is, the better. However, this is not actually the case. The above clinical trials all utilized industrially processed cacao to create the chocolate tested on trial participants.
Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Food Science this March showed that raw cacao was inferior to processed alkalized cacao.
So you may still be left wondering, how can you indulge your guilty chocolate addiction while still reaping the health benefits?
It goes without saying that a generic chocolate bar from your local store will not give you any of the aforementioned health benefits. This is because there is barely any cacao in the candy bar, to begin with.
White chocolate, for example, is actually made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk. Obviously, it contains none of the health benefits of chocolate. Milk chocolate also only contains a minimum amount of cocoa, in a range of around 10-20%. It is simply not possible to glean any beneficial flavanols from such a small amount of cacao.
Dark chocolate, sweet dark chocolate, and semi-sweet chocolate are also too high in sugar and fat. This is despite containing a quantity of up to 60% cacao solids. To truly reap the health benefits of chocolate, try bittersweet chocolate.
Bittersweet chocolate is most likely to provide a more substantial amount of flavanols. Bittersweet chocolate can contain anywhere between 70-85% cacao solids. Another unusual way to access the benefits in cacao is to use it unsweetened in savory dishes. Traditional chili con carne contains about a tablespoon of unsweetened cacao.
The secret to Kuna longevity
You can also try to replicate the recipe of the Kuna people. The Kuna boil ground fermented cacao beans (the same as cacao powder) in water. They add bananas into the mixture till it froths up. Finally, they strain the mixture to produce a healthy fat-free, sugar-free delicious drink.